With The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, writer/director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt split moviegoers (the few that turned out to see it, at least) right down the middle of the love/hate divide. Some heralded Dominik’s surreal, painting-in-motion visuals and meditative script as new-wave genius, while others called the genre-bending film a boring (put pretty) meandering waste of two-plus hours.
With Killing Them Softly, Dominik and Pitt re-team to bend mob movies conventions in a story about a chain of events set in motion by one ill-fated robbery; the man assigned to re-establish order in the midst of disorder; and what this world of underworld mechanics has to do with the political-economic realities of America during the last four years. (You read that right.)
Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is just a bottom-feeding ex-con looking to get back on his feet, but the economy is in the toilet (circa 2008) and what options does a crook have but to steal? So, when small-time gangster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) sets his thieving sights on a card game held by fellow mobster Marky Trattman (Ray Liotta), Frankie is all in. Unfortunately, Frankie chooses an accomplice in the form of herion-addict scumbag, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who proves to be the weak link that eventually lands the three conspirators on the radar of enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Jackie is a man known by few but feared by many – with good reason. But in the midst of such chaos, even a pro like Jackie finds it hard to navigate the politics of the new-age underworld order, begging the question: what the hell is happening to the American (criminal) way?
Those hoping for Killing Them Softly to be the action-packed thriller of a mob movie they may have seen advertised – you will not find that movie here. What you will find is something less like the quiet, dreamy tone of The Assassination of Jesse James, and more akin to a Quentin Tarantino movie – only with pulpy, pop-culture-laced dialogue replaced with more earnest ruminations on life, people, criminality, politics (both personal or otherwise) and the like. While much of it is certainly heavy-handed and preachy, thanks to the actors involved, it works pretty well most of the time.
Visually, Killing Them Softly is a strange, but beautiful, bird. There are many instances in which Dominik takes familiar tropes (a robbery, a hit, a tense conversation) and transforms them into exercises in film art. Some of it is organic and meaningful – a lot of it is admittedly indulgent – but it’s all interesting, to say the least. For instance: in one scene, a conversation between Frankie and a doped-up Russell oscillates between gritty reality and a surrealist vision of “the high” Russell is riding. Is the stylistic technique on display all that relevant to the story? No. Is it interesting and captivating to watch in the moment? In Dominik’s hands, the answer is “yes.”
Adding to the impressive visual composition are a lot of quality performances and a witty script (also from Dominik, who adapts the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins). As stated, this film is very “Tarantino-esque” in the sense that it is, ostensibly, a series of dialogue-driven scenes – often between just one or two performers. However, the conversations between these individuals (who discuss topics like crime and violence like they’re everyday normality) are hilarious in their juxtaposition to U.S. politics/economics – a comparison the film hammers over your head. Repeatedly.
News footage and broadcasts from the 2008 economic collapse and U.S. presidential campaign are woven into many of the scenes (through voice-over, or background noise), thereby framing the subtext of the underworld developments we’re witnessing. It’s very preachy and in-your-face, down to the last heated diatribe that closes the film. A subtle layer of metaphor would’ve been more effective, perhaps, but there is still an amount of clever humor that Dominik milks from the concept.
Pitt is solid as Jackie; the character is pretty static (a stoic, no-nonsense, by-the-book worker bee) but Pitt brings enough calculated intensity and tough-guy wit to make Jackie a cool (but menacing) character. Richard Jenkins (Let Me In) is a great foil for Pitt, playing the awkward middle-management drone who runs messages (and assassinations) between the bosses and street-level guys like Jackie. The multiple scenes with Pitt and Jenkins debating proper criminal protocol in parked cars or bars are some of the most effective illustrations of what Dominik is attempting to do – in that their discussions of retribution and management of the urban jungle effectively (and subtly) mimic many of the discussions heard in the American political arena.
The rest of the cast consists of mob drama vets like Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) and The Sopranos stars James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola (to name a few), riffing on their mobster personas. If you thought Tony Soprano was depressed, wait until you meet Gandolfini’s sad-sack hitman character, Mickey…
The two biggest standouts, however, are McNairy and Mendelsohn, who rise to the task of carrying the opening act of the film. Both actors have gained acclaim in recent years – McNairy for films like Monsters and Argo; Mendelsohn for films like Animal Kingdom and The Dark Knight Rises – and seeing them onscreen together, it is easy to understand why. From their hilariously low-brow dialogue to the tense robbery sequence they execute, the two actors own the screen for the significant amount of time they’re given, before things are handed over to Mr. Pitt.
In the end, Killing Them Softly will be best digested by those who are truly informed and prepared for what they are getting (as opposed to what the advertisements sell). While slower and more “talky” than most mob movies, the film nonetheless offers a lot intriguing visual stimuli and food for thought – which you’ll have no choice but to consume as it’s being force-fed to you. But, If you don’t like heady real-world issues being mixed in with your mob fantasies, best to kill the idea of seeking this one out.
Killing Them Softly is now playing in theaters. It is Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.