Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt
Last year, when making my list of “must see” films, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly was right near the top, due in no small part to my love for his 2007 masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I think is one of the best movies of the last 10 years. By the time Killing Them Softly actually rolled into theaters, however, my enthusiasm had dimmed and I no longer felt any sense of urgency about seeing it. I knew that I would see it eventually but, going by its tepid critical reception, I decided it could wait. I’m glad that I did because even with my expectations thoroughly checked, I still found the film disappointing. All the pieces for greatness are here, but the work never matches the ambition, and the pieces never really come together in harmony.
Set in the days and weeks leading up to the 2008 election, Killing Them Softly explores a segment of the criminal underworld in New Orleans (not that you really get a sense of New Orleans as the setting – while watching the film, I thought I was watching another Boston-set gangster movie). It begins with a plot by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob a mob-operated poker room, taking advantage of the fact that the proprietor, Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta), is known to have orchestrated just such a robbery in the past and will be the number one suspect if it happens again. He recruits two hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to pull off the job – not the best decision given Russell’s heroin addiction and Frankie’s lack of experience.
The job comes off and, as expected, Trattman is blamed and gets a brutal beating – though the men behind the beating don’t really believe that he was actually responsible for the robbery, they just feel that they have to make an example of him or open themselves up to being robbed by every dimwitted thug in the city. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to clean up the mess, finishing off the Trattman job and then taking out Frankie, Russell and Squirrel, whose involvement has come to light thanks to Russell’s drug induced loose lips. In conversation with the mafia’s representative, Driver (Richard Jenkins), Cogan insists on bringing in Mickey (James Gandolfini), a New York-based hitman, to kill Squirrel, with whom Cogan is already acquainted and who will realize that he’s on the block if he sees Cogan coming. Things start to come undone, however, when Cogan realizes that Mickey is a total wreck, leaving him to take the whole job himself – a messy, and very bloody, business.
Written by Dominik, Killing Them Softly strains to draw parallels between the 2008 financial crisis and the way that business is done in the criminal world. Money and the economy are frequently brought into conversation by the characters, and news clips of politicians and political analysts feature prominently in the background of many scenes. None of this really works because the attempts to make the narrative politically relevant are so blatant and inelegant, painfully shoehorned into scenes where they don’t really fit. I don’t believe for a second that any of the characters, aside from Driver, would listen to political talk radio or really even watch the news. The device, as used here, is not just heavy handed but completely out of place, making the film’s “message” feel completely at odds with what’s actually happening on screen. The only time that message and character really seem to come together is right at the end, when Pitt delivers a monologue about what the American dream truly means – every instance leading up to that just underscores that Dominik has narrative ambitions that he just can’t realize with this particular story.
All of this is unfortunate because there are times when Killing Them Softly truly does seem like it could be a great film. Photographed by Greig Fraser, it looks fantastic, full of interestingly framed shots that are equal parts gritty and beautiful, even when blood is being spattered all over the place. The characters, when they’re allowed to just be, are often fascinating. There are several scenes, which involve little more than two characters in conversation and which demonstrate what Dominik can do as a writer, when the film flashes to life but, just as quickly, it gets bogged back down in the film’s thematic agenda. Pitt’s performance vacillates between quiet, effective menace and sleepwalking, leaving the supporting cast to give the story whatever color it can be said to possess. Mendelsohn and McNairy, in particular, deliver such solid performances as the two hapless criminals that I wish the film had been more about them than about the men coming after them. All in all, Killing Them Softly is one missed opportunity after another.