Title: Killing Them Softly
Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director(s): Andrew Dominik
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
The one convention that gangster and mob flicks always associate with themselves is a capitalist society. Most of the time, these aren’t on-the-nose references but those looking for the parallels between the sloppy murder of a target and a poor economic structure are bound to find them. It takes an expert director to use subtlety for a convention we all expect to find in a film genre, but perhaps it’s more difficult to show the theme of a gangster flick alongside the film itself, and still entertain. That’s what Andrew Dominik has attempted to do here with his sophomore effort, Killing Them Softly, a ruthless film about the poor economy and how it can impact even the lowest, and seemingly most disconnected from reality, societies. It is brash, and very heavy-handed in its delivery, but it also contains a finesse to it that shows how the possession of money is so transitory and what it does to those who rely on it too much.
Brad Pitt is the main attraction of this film, though he’s assisted throughout the film by a stellar cast of the most commonplace names in these types of films. He plays Jackie Cogan, a hitman called in to deal with Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two low-life criminals who choose to rob Mark Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) card game. Believing it to be a fool-proof plan that will result in everyone suspecting Trattman to have robbed his own game (which he had done previously successfully), Jackie is brought in to make sure no one gets away with it and everyone knows not to do it again. The movie takes place primarily through dialogue sequences, most of which feel like they’re either going for a Snatch or Tarantino-esque feel, but it’s really only the conversations between Jackie and the mysterious Driver (Richard Jenkins) that entertain and feel significant, especially their final conversation, which embodies the entire film and throws away any expectation that subtlety may exist in this movie. The conversations between Frankie and Russell are entertaining on a very base level, but almost every conversation drags as it hits the same points over and over.
James Gandolfini also shows up in this movie and delivers some superb acting on his part, but it’s to a character that feels ultimately boring. However, perhaps that’s the point of him as he is a hitman who is past his prime and needs to have his life re-evaluated. Instead of doing what he was called for to do, he drowns himself in booze and sleeps with prostitutes galore, then in the brief moments he’s not doing any of those, he’s giving long-winded monologues about the sex he used to have and the domestic issues he has at home. Made to represent the old ways of the mob underworld, his character is utterly pointless in today’s world because it costs too much to have him brought in and he does just as good a job as any other enforcer. On top of that, he wastes money in an economy that has everyone else scrounging for cash, so naturally Jackie isn’t pleased by this.
Jackie himself plays as a somewhat moral compass for the whole film. He’s the only one who seems completely worried about the lack of funds in the mob’s arsenal and is thinking of efficient ways to kill someone all the time. His political self is slowly revealed through conversations he has, but the mentions are quick, so many will likely feel that his speech at the end of the film came out of nowhere, when in actuality it was built up and when the last straw broke, he fully revealed himself. For example, he wants to deal with Trattman in a cost-efficient manner, but instead the Driver sends two henchmen to brutalize him. Now two henchmen need to be paid, instead of another alternative.
However, it’s also the violence that makes this movie feel like a prime metaphor for the economy. The two violent sequences that are the most memorable, are the ones that occur before the middle of the film, as well a scene where Russell is slowly falling asleep while revealing important info to Frankie. What these scenes have in common is they cost more to make than the rest of the film. After these three sequences happen, violence is shot naturally; no special effects or post-production flourishes. The film wasted its budget in the beginning, just like consumers will spend their money right when they get it, then the rest of the film is forced to rely on dialogue and silence to entertain the audience. The film does not want you to forget that the economy is bad, but what many feel is too heavy-handed, I feel is expertly done with only a few unnecessary ways that it drives its message home. One of those ways is through the almost complete avoidance of silence so as to fill every scene with at least a bit of either a radio or TV broadcasting conversations from Bush, McCain and Obama as they discuss the economic situation.
There may not be any subtlety to Killing Them Softly, but there are parallels that are woven in masterfully so it takes reflection to understand the true message of the movie. I do not love this film, but I think it’s an important one nonetheless, and one that seems to be trashed for the same reasons that made me like it. I feel Gandolfini is wasted in the movie, a lot of the dialogue drags on, and the use of broadcasts to fill silence is extremely unnecessary, but there’s a lot of reasons to like the film too. I think as a general movie-goer, there probably won’t be much appeal for this movie due to its lack of subtlety and copious amounts of dialogue, but for those who love film, there is a lot to enjoy here.