[Killing Them Softly
Written & Directed by Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini
MPAA: R – For Violence, Sexual References, Pervasive Language, and some Drug Use]
My mantra for reviewing movies has always been to judge and critique something based on its own merits instead of based on expectations, source material, other films, etc. This is so I could, of course, keep a very balanced viewpoint that judges the film on its qualities and weaknesses, and those alone. This is, of course, how I view criticism for games, books, the like. So let it be said that when I end up disliking a movie that I was previously anticipating, it’s without a doubt not a form of “disappointment”. It’s just me judging the movie for what it is.
Still though, it should be said that Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is what I like to consider a modern masterpiece. A brilliant, deliberately paced, thoughtful, and gorgeous character study/western epic that packed an emotional punch. So when it was announced that Dominik would be reuniting with Brad Pitt for his next movie Killing Them Softly, I got pretty stoked. And there’s certainly a lot to like in the film; it’s just a shame that the finished project is appallingly dull, forced, and heavy-handed.
Killing Them Softly, based on the novel Cogan’s Trade which took place in ’70s Boston and transcribing the story to New Orleans 2008, follows the aftermath of a mob casino stick-up that leads to a series of murders done by the mob enforcer Jackie (Brad Pitt), as he is employed to tie up all the loose ends that the two incompetent crooks responsible left behind.
If that doesn’t sound like a detailed enough plot synopsis, that’s most likely because I barely had any idea what the overarching plot was nor did I care to piece it together myself. Despite what the advertising has lead you to believe, the film is almost completely dialogue based, and the trouble with a dialogue-heavy film is that it only works if the conversations the characters are having are well-written and interesting. The dialogue itself feels and sounds authentic and has a certain crackle to it, but it’s undone by the fact that it’s in service of meandering, pointless conversations. Many times, you can’t tell whether the characters are going off on Tarantino-esque tangents that have nothing to do with the story or discussing the actual story. The dialogue just sort of blurs together in a way that isn’t particularly engaging.
Speaking of things that blur together, the characters all felt pretty one-dimensional and uninteresting. To put it as simply as possible, I just didn’t want to be around any of them. The film doesn’t have a single human being the audience can relate to, which I’d be totally okay with if there was something compelling about them or they were having meaningful discussions, but those two aspects are sadly not present in the film
The only thing that held my interest in these characters’ and gave them a zest of personality was the terrific cast. Brad Pitt especially brings his natural charisma with him, while also managing to be a legitimately threatening and imposing presence. When he’s on screen, you know he means business. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are enjoyable as the two witless criminals who are swept up in a convoluted scheme to rob Ray Liotta, who is also fine in his very few scenes. James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins steal the show as, respectively, a lazy assassin who can’t seem to do his job and a mysterious executive who almost always has meetings in a car parked directly under a bridge. But again, it’s just a shame that these actors aren’t given enough to do.
At the very least there are some great directorial flourishes from Dominik, who you can always count on having a knack for visual cohesiveness. His depiction of New Orleans is vague and mysterious, refusing to use any sort of obvious visual indicators that it really is New Orleans; hell the whole thing can take place just about anywhere. Well, wherever we’re in, it’s dark, grimy, almost always raining, and has that classic noir grit to it. And when the movie finally decides to put Jackie’s hits on screen, they’re filmed quite exquisitely. While most of them are on the more subtle side, exploiting tension and surprise shocks to good use, there is one stand-out scene that utilizes slo-mo in a gorgeous way.
But what’s not favorable about Dominik’s direction is…well… Okay, there’s literally only one–and I repeat, one–reason as to why this film adaptation of the book decided to take place in 2008 New Orleans instead of 1974 Boston: Some good ol’ fashioned, timely, political message-mongering. Now, giving your movie a sort of political message is never a bad thing in and of itself, so long as the message is being communicated to the viewer in a way that is natural to the story. Killing Them Softly, on the other hand, is anything but natural, and the exact opposite of subtle.
The film is littered with forced references to the 2008 election and political landscape. Every single car radio plays nothing but political speeches from the two presidential candidates, the opening scene features two large billboards of Obama and McCain literally placed side-by-side, and during important scenes a TV in the background will be playing some sort of election footage that just so happens to conveniently be relevant to what’s happening on screen. And if you didn’t catch the message the first time, Jackie literally spells the themes out for the viewer in his closing monologue right before it cuts to black.
There is nothing elegant about this sort of approach, and in being so specific, it muddles its own message just as much as it makes it so obviously clear. Viewers (the smart ones, anyway) will always bring their own interpretations to works of art, and when you purposefully steer them down one path and one message as heavy-handedly and bluntly as you do here, you end up discouraging their intelligence. It’s one thing to refuse subtlety (Aronofsky’s films in general are some of my favorites), but when it’s as forced as it is here, a message simply isn’t worth the slog.
Final Verdict: In spite of some strong acting and talented direction, Killing Them Softly is too heavy-handed and dull to really recommend, with not enough likable or compelling characters or conversations, and forced visual metaphors that get grating with each use.
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See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have cigarettes to compulsively smoke. Adios!