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Killing Them Softly Review

December 1, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Wilson
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Killing Them Softly Review  

Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by: George V. Higgins

Jackie: Brad Pitt
Frankie: Scoot McNairy
Russell: Ben Mendelsohn
Mickey: James Gandolfini
Driver: Richard Jenkins
Johnny Amato: Vincent Curatola
Markie Trattman: Ray Liotta
Steve Caprio: Trevor Long
Barry Caprio: Max Casella
Dillon: Sam Shepard
Kenny Gill: Slaine

Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Running Time: 97 minutes

I don’t know how Andrew Dominik will feel about his latest film Killing Them Softly twenty years from now, but one would hope he realizes what went so terribly, terribly wrong with it sooner than that. Dominik has technical skills – as so many current young wanna-be auteurs do – but those skills aren’t what’s wrong with Killing Them Softly. No, here is a film whose so-very-obvious technical tricks are in the service of the most sadly derivative themes to come along in an art house crime drama in quite awhile. From start to finish, Killing Them Softly plays as some poor undergraduate’s self-serious nihilistic treatise. Crime is like capitalism, man, and we’ve got to fight the power and we’re all just pawns in the game, man, and violence isn’t pretty, man, and criminals are just like us regular people dude…and so on and so forth. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what Dominik is going for or wants you to think about. He tells you…and tells you…and then, as if you hadn’t figured it out in the film’s first hour and a half, he tells you one final, head-shaking, finger-wagging time, in what is both his film’s conclusion and its very loudly spelled-out theme.

America, man. It’s fucked up.

Frankly, I’m kind of stunned that Dominik went in this direction. His last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, isn’t perfect, but it is at least more subtle and nuanced than this. Killing Them Softly is about as subtle as a punch in the face. Brad Pitt (who also starred in Assassination) stars as Jackie, a charismatic, if non-plussed hitman brought in to clean up a local mess. Frankie and Russell are two incompetent goons (played by Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hired by a dry cleaner gangster named Johnny Amato – aka “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) – to rob a mob protected card game. Their supposed “foolproof” plan would work, because the game was run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who had somehow escaped punishment for flaunting the fact that he had once robbed his own game years earlier (in much the same way as this robbery goes down). The mob would lay the blame at Trattman, never knowing it was Frankie, Russell and Amato who had done it. However, it doesn’t take long for Jackie to figure things out when Russell later admits to another low-level gangster who works for Jackie’s predecessor/mentor Dillon (Sam Shepard – who appears in a brief cameo) of the daring heist they pulled off. Jackie struggles to get the go-ahead from the gangster head honchos who run things more like a safe-playing corporation, represented by a middleman played by Richard Jenkins. Eventually, he has his orders and goes about cleaning up the mess of people – both above and below him – who he sees as incompetent and inferior.

Here’s the thing. There are good things to be found in Killing Them Softly and a lot of that starts with the acting. Dominik has put together an impressive and talented cast, starting with one of cinema’s last remaining “Big F’n Movie Stars ©.” One of Dominik’s best decisions was casting Pitt as the enigmatic, detached antihero at this film’s center. Pitt couldn’t pull off the type of low level thugs, washed up gangsters or deteriorating junkies that populate the world of this movie (the Higgins novel is set in Boston, the film was shot in New Orleans). As weird as it sounds, Pitt’s performance here reminded me of his work from last year’s Moneyball; he brings a calmness, an astute sense of self and surroundings, as well as workmanlike determination to the role. Jackie is a killer, yes, but he’s also a man who doesn’t enjoy what he does or inflicting pain in the process. Thus, he prefers “killing them softly,” to save his targets unnecessary physical and mental pain, as well as sparing himself trauma from the act itself. Pitt is great (as he usually is at this point in his career), but it’s all unfortunately in the service of platitudes and clichés.

The rest of the cast is strong as well, particularly James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins. In fact, Gandolfini’s only two scenes (both with Pitt) are perhaps the most interesting thing in the film. He plays renown hitman New York Mickie, brought down by Jackie to take one of the hits. Instead, Jackie is surprised to see Mickie has become depressed, dependent on booze and hookers to stave off his own dark thoughts and inadequacies concerning his marriage falling apart as well as his likely return to jail for illegal gun possession. Jenkins plays the worrisome middle man, tasked by the higher-ups (portrayed as some faceless committee who run things like a corporation) to make arrangements and make sure things get taken care of. Dominik has said both men were typecast, in order to circumvent traditional genre elements and audience expectations. For the most part it works, as both actors play roles awfully familiar to them (Gandolfini playing a messed up mobster; where have we seen that before?), but imbue them the characteristics of men who, more than anything, are tired. Tired of society, tired of their work, tired of those around them, and in the case of Mickie, tired of life. If he had stayed this course, trusted his actors more, developed these characters further and cut back on unnecessary exposition and thematic waste, Dominik could have delivered a better movie. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Perhaps because Dominik was born in New Zealand and is Australia-based, he believes his ostentatious, didactic musings on the correlation between American government and capitalism to common criminality are somehow unique or worthy of being the centerpiece for his noir-ish crime drama. Perhaps he genuinely believes he’s charting new ground or saying something important with Killing Them Softly. I Whether it’s due to ignorance or temporary insanity, I don’t even think I need to mention how often these themes and stories have been done. For starters, look up every cinematic take on organized crime from The Godfather on. The only thing different here is that Dominik has contemporized the message for our age, cynically cloaking it within the events of the fall and winter of 2008. It’s crime drama meets Occupy Wall Street.

I don’t mind a director “showing off.” Oftentimes, it leads to a visual flair and new take on the art of storytelling I can appreciate in an age of cinema that oftentimes feels cookie-cutter and without purpose. However, I recoil when it becomes painfully evident when a filmmaker tries too hard, when the need to prove how smart and how thoughtful and how important he or she is overcomes what is on the screen. Ultimately, it is Dominik himself that too often ruins his own work; George Higgins’ novels featured a criminal culture that was grimy, barren, thoroughly unglamorous, a world of small-time crooks just getting by. Dominik gets this, but undercuts it through his own tricks. He has said in interviews that he wanted to show violence and criminals in that same unglamorous vein. Contrast that with watching Brad Pitt enter to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” Or when a hit is shown in highly stylized, achingly beautiful slow motion, where we see every element of the shot from chamber to brain: the bullet breaks a window, splits the rain, cracks a skull; everything glistens and is lingered on. Or when we see a conversation from the perspective of junkie Russell, when the camera fades in and out, alternating between kaleidoscopic mishmashes of colors and blackness, all set to Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” It’s hard to take protestations like Dominik makes with one hand seriously, when he’s indulging in genre clichés and going for the “pretty shot” with the other.

Make no mistake, anyone who tries to describe Killing Them Softly as an “action” movie or “thriller” is either unfamiliar with how those genres work, or is deliberately misleading you. The film is slow-paced and consists mainly of dialogue. Much of that dialogue is meant to portray these criminals as sympathetic, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with – unless you give them lines like “You probably wouldn’t want to rape her, but all the plumbing works fine.” It does have moments of piercing violence which, when not undercut by Dominik’s directorial tricks, do have impact. And not everything Dominik tries ultimately fails. Even within his hammer-to-nail use of Obama’s words and the government’s reaction to the 2008 financial meltdown, he does effectively allude to Obama’s use of drone warfare in Cogan’s philosophy of “killing them softly, from a distance.” It is just one instance of why subtlety would have better suited this material, if given a chance. Visually, Dominik’s movie has a number of impressive shots; the problem is that we live in the age of “talkies.” Nearly everywhere in this cesspool of pathetic, misogynist, self-obsessed lowlifes, there’s a radio tuned to NPR listening to Hank Paulson, or a TV set to C-SPAN, blaring the speeches of President Bush or then Senator Obama during a high-stakes poker game. You don’t have to buy it; you only have to Get It.

What it comes down to is that Dominik simply doesn’t trust his audience enough to get what his film is trying to say. And so, he proceeds to commit what for me is a cardinal sin. He tells instead of shows. Not only that, he tells…and tells…and tells…and then tells some more, just in case you didn’t get it the first half dozen times. The very ending of the movie is the worst instance of all, when Jackie makes clear his price for the hits he’s done for the faceless, corporate gangsters Jenkins represents. He scoffs at now President-Elect Obama’s words, that Americans are “one people.” His retort? “America isn’t a country; it’s just a business.”

Killing Them Softly isn’t a movie; it’s just a vessel to feign at sounding meaningful.

The 411: Andrew Dominik's new film is visually impressive in places and features very good performances, particularly from Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins. The problem is that Dominik doesn't trust audiences to connect his thematic dots and so he does it for them in repeated and frequently obvious ways. Using clips of speeches from then-Senator Obama, President Bush and even former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Dominik makes obvious and oft-compared conections between the worlds of America's government and financial institutions to those of gangsters, hitmen and junkies. Everything is a transaction, the little guy always gets screwed and as Brad Pitt puts it plainly to end the movie, “America isn't a country; it's just a business.” It's deep stuff...if you're an 18-year-old freshman philosophy major. For the rest of us? It's shallow, derivative, boring and about as subtle as hammering a nail into viewers' foreheads. Jackie Cogan likes to kill them softly, but Andrew Dominik prefers to bludgeon as hard as possible. There's potential and sporadic moments of brilliance, but that's all they are. Ultimately, it's one of the more disappointing misses at the movies this year. Not Recommended.
Final Score:  5.0   [ Not So Good ]  legend

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Jeremy Wilson

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