For a movie receiving such wide praise, I frankly just don’t get it. For my mind Killing Them Softly is a confused character drama that doesn’t know if it wants to be a black comedy or a serious hard-hitting political allegory. Writer/Director Andrew Dominik has brought to life a partial adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade in 97 minutes of slow, sleep inducing character drama interlaced with brutal violence while force feeding a particularly one-dimensional political message down the audiences throat. It’s one of these strange films that receives critical acclaim while the rest of us shake our heads and wonder “what was all that about?”.
Russel (Ben Mendelsohn), Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Johnny (Vincent Curatola) decide to rob a mob backed card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they will get away with it because Markie once knocked over his own card game and the mob will just pin it all on him. Unfortunately for the boys, Jackie (Brad Pitt) the mobs hit man doesn’t believe Markie would make the same mistake twice and proceeds to hunt down and execute them. The film gets it’s title from Jackie’s method of execution, by “killing them softly” he takes any emotion out of it and keeps things as matter of fact and business like as possible.
The film loudly states at every possible turn the fact that the card game is an allegory for America’s financial system, the robbery an allegory for the financial crisis, and the hit man an allegory for what the Government tried to do to fix the problem. Jackie goes from scene to scene sitting and listening as the films characters pour their hearts out. They’re all troubled, confused, sad and alone and Jackie basically ignores their plights because it gets in the way of him doing his job. There’s a thick layer of sub-text here that isn’t subtle, there are real people with real problems and our Government ignores them in the name of getting things done.
All of this is interlaced with President Obama’s pre-election criticism of the Governments actions and his rhetoric about community, one people, and searching for a better way. You’ll be confused by the end of the film however, you won’t know if Jackie is a satirical character decrying how destructive and insane the Bush administrations methods of dealing with the crisis were or if he’s a representation of reality and Obama is just kidding himself. It’s over kill if you ask me and the films political overtones take a front seat for almost the entire film damaging some really interesting characters who frankly never get to do anything interesting.
It’s about this time I should talk about the performances, and yes they are all quite adequate and interesting, but what’s the point? None of the characters have any kind of charisma or likability and their functions as allegorical material over shadow anything meaningful about them as people. In one case a second hit man named Mickey (James Galdolfini) is hired to do some of the dirty work, but when he turns out to be a drunk he’s discarded. James does a fine job with the role and gives him an emotional core, but who cares? He essentially has two scenes where he does nothing but bore us with a lengthy speech designed to establish that he’s a hopeless human being. I just don’t see the point? Where is the conflict? The drama? The tension? The unique insight into the criminal underworld? It’s a film void of anything interesting for these characters besides their role in its message.
Occasionally the film manages some technical brilliance with a fairly well shot drive by shooting, and the Directors take on what it would “feel” like to be high on drugs is quite clever, but it’s all too little and it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the film nor help drive it’s narrative forward. There is a strange selection of music too that underscored the film, and overall it’s sound design is off-putting and obtuse. I’m sure there is someone who would appreciate it, but it’s not me, and I don’t think the general public would really get into it either.
Killing Them Softly killed me softly for its entire running time, I was bored and unimpressed. There is some artistic merit here and a few moments of either genuine tension or good black comedy, but they are too few and far between. I don’t think this is a movie many casual movie goers will enjoy, so I won’t even recommend you wait for the DVD.