With big guns, stolen money and a plotline built around organized crime, “Killing Them Softly” looks like any other gangster film from an outsider’s perspective. While the film is, in many ways, stereotypical of the genre, director Andrew Dominik attempts to take a different approach and create something that will differentiate itself from this well-trodden path with mixed results.
The film centers around two petty criminals, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who hatch a devious plan to rob Markie’s (Ray Liotta) mafia funded card game and make a small fortune. This, however, as so often is the case, is not a straight forward job. As things soon spiral out of control, ice cold hit man Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to rectify the situation and find the culprits for the crime.
Dominik attempts to avoid genre trappings by adding an extra layer to the film in the form of a social political commentary of today’s America. Although this is not necessarily a new notion as films like “Scarface” have previously discussed the idea of the modern day American dream, never before has the underworld dealings of crime been so explicitly linked to America in its identity, economy and beliefs.
Dominik enforces this subplot through the setting of the 2008 Presidential election, with snippets of candidates’ speeches echoing throughout the film as well as within the character’s dialogue itself. While the gangster-political combination asks some interesting questions, it ultimately fails to provide any meaning or insightful commentary on the realism of the American dream in the current recession. The most political analysis in the film comes from Cogan who retorts to an Obama speech that “America is not a country, it’s a business” during a rant about the country’s state, without actually making a useful or relevant point in the context of the plot. Credit must be given to the director for attempting to add an extra layer to the gangster genre, but its execution in the film is poor and fails to offer any value to the piece in the long run.
With the plot is fairly predictable and the political angle not as prominent or effective as it aims to be, the film relies heavily on the acting, which luckily is superb throughout. Lead man Brad Pitt is irresistibly cool as Cogan, the diplomatic and deadly hit man. The film is dialogue heavy and many of its highlights are found in Pitt’s interactions with his colleagues. His conversations with mafia middle man, Richard Jenkins, are brief but hugely entertaining.
Where the script and acting really stand tall is with the introduction of Mickey (James Gandolfini). Gandolfini’s character is a brash, rude alcoholic hit man who has fallen off his game. It is in the exchanges he has with Pitt, notably a scene in his hotel room, where the witty script shines best recreating something reminiscent of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s legendry conversations in “Pulp Fiction.” The ability to take mundane conversations and make them enthralling has been perfected by Tarantino over the years and in “Killing Them Softly” his influence can be seen.
There are a lot of things “Killing Them Softly” does extremely well. On top of the excellent acting is some innovative cinematography throughout. The slow, methodical pace of the film coupled with the extensive dialogue means that violent scenes are few and far between, but when they do finally come around they are savoured, adding extra gravitas to them. Cogan’s first hit is an excellent example of this; slowed down and depicted in gruesome detail, making it a powerful scene.
While the film has a strong supporting cast it fails to properly explore their characters, leaving potentially interesting roles for Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) as merely caricatures of what they could be. The film’s inability to explore Mendelsohn and McNairy’s characters beyond the fact they are small time crooks means the audience has little regard for them and their fate in the end, something that damages the film’s already underwhelming climax.
The film’s methodical, often pondering pace hints at a grand climax as Cogan closes in on his targets, however, the film finishes abruptly leaving the audience with a rather disappointing end that lacks the punch it needs to compliment the build-up provided. “Killing Them Softly” explores some interesting ideas and attempts to produce something that will break away from the predictable gangster film, but in the end does not do enough to differentiate itself as the plot falls flat. Like this year’s similar release “Killer Joe,” it is a film that holds promise and a more than able cast but in the end leaves the viewer wondering what could have been. “Killing Them Softly” goes out with a whimper instead of the bang that it so very much needed.
Jonathan Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org