[Politics aside, I love the poster art for this film. Found at: http://www.ropeofsilicon.com]
Most people couldn’t find one reason to get out and see Killing Them Softly. I had three. First, despite the little advertising I had seen for the film, I had read a lot of positive things about it including some reviewers saying it was the best film of the year so far. Second, it stars Brad Pitt. I’m not head-over-heels for Pitt by any means, but of late (I’d trace it back to Babel in 2006) he’s had a pretty good track record of picking interesting films and he’s usually a solid performer in everything. Third, it is directed by Andrew Dominik.
I admit that I haven’t seen Dominik’s first film, 2000’s Chopper, but as a big fan of the Western genre I adore his second film, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The cast in Assassination is great, led, I suppose, by Pitt, who’s low-key performance as Jesse gives way for Casey Affleck to shine in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as Robert Ford, his best performance to date and one of my favorites of that year. Assassination gained high praise when it first came out, particularly as an under-seen and underrated film. Recently, I read a review that called it overrated, so I guess the pendulum has started to swing the other way. I understand why some might not enjoy an action-light, 2-hour, 40-minute film when 3:10 to Yuma is playing in the next theater over, but I really like this film. It doesn’t hurt that it’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins (recently of Skyfall fame). As a western history buff, I think it’s a bold decision to start the film years after the most well-known event in Jesse James history (beyond his assassination, of course): the Northfield, Minnesota Raid. That 1876 event has been depicted in almost every other Jesse James movie I’ve ever seen, but Dominik begins the film in 1881, the year before Jesse’s death. Assassination is more of a psychological character-study then a traditional western film, and I think it, and the genre are all the better for it. [NOTE: for those interested in Jesse James history, I highly recommend Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles]
In Killing Them Softly, Pitt is the one doing the assassinating. He stars as a hit man brought in to fix the problems caused by the armed robbery of a private poker game. Honestly, there isn’t much more to the plot than that, but that’s no matter because it’s the characters that really shine. Though he doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, allowing for his on-the-nose entrance to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” Pitt is engaging throughout. He keeps an even keel as Cogan, turning in a restrained performance that is free of the flash found in his earlier star-making roles.
The rest of the cast is just as solid, particularly Scoot McNairy (also seen recently in Argo, my take on that film here) as Frankie, one of the two men who rob the poker game. Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kindgom, The Dark Knight Rises) is Russell, the other stickup man. Honestly, McNairy could be considered the lead character of the film, kind of like Affleck in Assassination, as he’s around for the entire film. Richard Jenkins as Driver, a representative for the mafia acting as a contact for Cogan, and James Gandolfini as Mickey, another hitman, also put in memorable performances. The major players are all very believable in their roles, from slick hitman to slimy mafia middleman to grimy hoodlum. Rounding out the cast are Ray Liotta, Vincent “Johnny Sack” Curatola, Max Casella and Sam Shepherd, in what’s essentially a cameo. Nope, there are no women in this film (apart from a prostitute and Curatola’s girlfriend).
Killing Them Softly has been noted for its violence. I didn’t find it particularly gross or gory, though it is rather brutal, beginning with a punch-sound-effects-heavy beating in the rain. The first scene of killing in the film is also delivered in lyrical slow motion. It isn’t entirely original given its violence-as-dance appearance, but it is a standout scene in the film, well shot and well staged. It exists in contrast to the other kills in the film. One of which is done at a greater remove (or even more “softly”) and another of which comes as a viscerally effective shock. Dominik also allows himself some flash with a memorably stylized scene between McNairy and Mendelsohn, with the latter drifting in and out of a drugged-induced haze.
Like Assassination, Killing is also contemplative, giving its audience time to listen to long conversations (of which there are several) and sometimes to revel (or squirm) in its silences. Pitt shares dialogue scenes with Jenkins, Gandolfini and McNairy that I could watch over and over. I love it when a film or TV show (notably Breaking Bad) takes the time for a real conversation to run its course. The words are important in this film, which reminded me more than a few times of Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin), adapted from a stage play by Tracy Letts. Friedkin’s film is more violent and crazy-over-the-top, but I think the films share a few things and perhaps a more in-depth comparison is due.
The leisurely pace of each scene in Killing Them Softly stands in contrast to the film’s 97-minute run time, a brevity that caught me off guard. When the film ended, I thought that perhaps I had missed something, or maybe there were reels missing. Adding to my suspicion of an incomplete print was the fact that Dominik seems to leave the fates of some of the characters dangling, or decided off-screen. While it was somewhat curious initially, in hindsight I think it’s a great touch. The film doesn’t show us everything, but it shows us enough to tell its story.
If there’s one criticism I have, and several others have, of Killing Them Softly, it’s the blatant references to the faltering American economy. Killing is set in 2008 and it seems like every other scene (including the opening credits sequence, which I quite liked) features a speech about the state of the nation’s economy by either then-president George W. Bush or presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain. TV or radio broadcasts of these speeches appear in the background of several scenes, sometimes interrupting them in a “do you guys get it yet?” manner that I feel distracts and detracts from the much stronger balance of the film. This is a curious choice given that the film is an adaptation of a 1974 novel titled Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. It makes one wonder what a straight adaptation might have looked like without the heavy-handed commentary on the economic crisis in the US.
In the end, I can’t say I liked Killing Them Softly as much as The Assassination of Jesse James, though it has a lot working in its favor. Dominik has directed a pretty good follow-up to his previous effort. I think it’s too bad that more people aren’t seeing this film, as I enjoyed it just as much as some of the higher profile awards-contender films I’ve seen this fall. Political views aside, Killing Them Softly is a nice “short story” of a film with an able cast and engaging dialogue. It’s certainly not as bad as its box office receipts suggest.