Killing Them Softly is like the grit off a grill that you make sure you keep on your dish because it adds that something special. The mob movie is the entree and director Andrew Dominik adds that gritty coolness to it by blessing it with a visual flair and gathering up a well pedigreed cast to execute what otherwise could have been a rather stale film. It has been five years since Dominik's previous film hit cinemas. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a wonderful spin on the western, a subtle film about a larger than life name that was in many ways an epic portrait that brought a real life, a real man into fill the legend of that name. With this feature the director again takes a well known type of film and gives it a sense of realism that now, having seen how it can be done, makes the others of the genre feel like they were missing something. There are certainly moments throughout the film where I was somewhat stunned there wasn't actually more to the film than the simple message it is trying to deliver, and in that regard it does beat its ideas into the ground to the point that by the end of it that payoff isn't as great as Dominik would have likely hoped it to be, but for such an intimate film, it feels nothing short of ambitious. Killing Them Softly has the cool edge to a film that I really dig, that is sometimes easier to admire in the sense of its style than it is to enjoy the actual going-on's that contrive the story yet I was never once bored with the film and on was consistently impressed with the tone, musical choices, and wonderful cinematography.
Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly.

Based on the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins the film tells the story of two idiots who decide it wise to knock over a mob protected poker game. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is a type of enforcer/fixer and is brought in to clean up the mess these guys make. In investigating the case it is made clear this game was hit specifically for the fact it was run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who previously hit his own game to make a little extra money. So called smart guy Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires the two dummies willing to try and make the mob think Trattman is dumb enough to pull the same trick twice and when his guinea pigs get away with it Cogan is sent in to do some damage control. Mistakes must be paid for and points must be made. All the while the way in which the mob operates is paralleled to the way our government does, that it is full of capitalism and that it too will likely collapse just as our economy did. This point is not very subtle and I say that with sarcasm in my voice as this aspect is truly the only thing that took me out of the story. It is done to the point it made me dislike the film more than I would have had it not been so overly incessant. Every room a character walks into, every car someone sits in they are either watching the news or listening to talk radio that is going on about the current state of the economy. Either that or Bush is making a speech, trying to sustain what he could of his legacy or we see Obama trying to win his first term. It would have been a slick tool, a nice puzzle to put together had Dominik placed these things in the background once or twice but he hits his audience over the head with it so many times it feels like a smart film made for dumb people. We get it! Learn to trust your audience.

Despite this major drawback there is still so much to love and relish about the film. If you are a fan of Pitt you know what he will deliver and in a way we (and I mean those who are fans of Pitt, but how can you not be at this point?) have become spoiled by the guy who has delivered, over the past several years, quality film after ambitious, funny, and heartbreaking quality film. This is not the flashiest role and it doesn't quite reach the heights some of his other recent films have but he is still solid and he brings the movie a sense of pace. The film moves at the speed of Jackie and he guides it where it needs to go. He is so effortlessly cool and gives off that dangerous vibe while still letting everyone know he is the smartest guy in the place. It is clear that he owns the actions, owns the fate even of those involved in the cases he's brought in to work. To work together with Pitt, as kind of points to demonstrate his power and skill set, we are given two minor but vital characters played by Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini. Jenkins plays one only known as the driver and is a liaison between the unseen big wigs running the show and an enforcer like Pitt. Littered throughout the movie are little conversations between Pitt and Jenkins that show how practical the process of deciding who needs to die and what actions need to be taken by which people and how much it is going to cost. They are witty, funny conversations that just happen to be about death. They provoke the comedy in the actions of everything no matter how serious the circumstances. Besides the short segments with Jenkins Pitt shares two scenes with Gandolfini that could be short films in their own right. Each of them touch on life's most common issues; marriage, addiction, love, loss, the point of it all. They are very poignant, subtle moments where the scope of what is being discussed is evidenced only in small examples. Dominik would have done well to take a note from himself here and applied it to the overall theme he was shooting for.

Jackie speaks with his driver (Richard Jenkins) about the state of the country.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is not the great film I hoped it to be, but it is a better than average movie and not something you would be so lucky to stumble upon any weekend of the year. The film is stylishly shot in New Orleans and is purposefully grungy in its every appearance. It is brutally violent and much of it is stylized without being made to look like anything less than it actually is. Performances abound from every member of the cast that move the story forward with an increasingly engaging set of complications and allow us to understand where each of them is coming from, why they do what they feel they need to do. We don't become invested in these people in the common sense of the word but we are instead drawn to their drive, their reason for becoming who they are in this present situation. It should especially be noted Scoot McNairy (Argo, Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) do great work here as the two idiots who kick off the chain of events in the first place. McNairy is given more to do and proves an actor to watch for when he and Pitt's Jackie have an intense conversation in a bar. As for Mendelsohn, he is a constantly sweaty crack addict who oozes nasty every time his silhouette enters the frame. There is likely a better, more controlled cut of this film in an editing room somewhere and though we may never see that version it is clear this is what Dominik wanted his film to be and I trust the guy enough that possibly after repeat viewings I may better grasp a deeper, more meaningful message to take away from the film. Until then, it all feels just short of greatness.


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