“Killing Them Softly” is about as far away from a feel-good movie that you’ll likely get this year. Relentlessly violent and candidly cynical in tone, this is easily among the angriest cinematic representations of 21st century America. But beyond its precipitous bleakness, does the film at least leave us with an encouraging, hopeful message? Nope, there’s no light at the end of this tunnel here. It’s just utter darkness from start to finish.
That doesn’t mean “Killing Them Softly” is a bad movie by any means. If anything, this is a stylishly produced and well-acted crime thriller. Even though the film is pessimistic to the core, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some accuracy to its moral. Just don’t expect to walk away from the experience with a good feeling. If you want to see something uplifting and life affirming, “Life of Pi” will be more up your alley.
Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” “Killing Them Softly” was directed and adapted by Andrew Dominik of “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Dominik sets the narrative in 2008 as our country finds itself in the middle of a presidential campaign and financial crisis. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are Frankie and Russell, two small-time thugs who aren’t quite as smart or bad as they think. The two goons are hired to rob a mob-protected card game being supervised by Ray Liotta’s Markie. Unlike most heists in these types of movies where all heck breaks loose, the robbery actually goes off without a hitch. That’s not to say there aren’t severe repercussions.
Although the opening scenes set up Frankie and Russell to be our protagonists, the real focus of the film is Jackie, the enforcer in charge of tracking down the thugs that ripped off the mob. Brad Pitt, redeeming himself after that horrendously laughable Chanel No. 5 commercial, plays Jackie in one of the film’s several memorable performances. Richard Jenkins is suitably low-key as the mob’s lawyer while James Gandolfini is larger than life as an out-of-town gangster facing jail time. Liotta, meanwhile, probably has the most sympathetic character as he endures brutal punishment for not keeping the card game secure. It’s hard to go wrong with any of these actors, who all fit just right into their roles.
“Killing Them Softly” is additionally heavy with underlying commentary on the struggling economy, capitalism, and the phony ideals sold by politicians. Dominik incorporates media footage and radio interviews featuring President Bush and Obama into several scenes. This decision is a mostly unnecessary though, coming off as more distracting than impactful. A lot of audiences are also going to be pondering what any of this political mumbo jumbo has to do with the major plot concerning the mob. While the connection is there, “Killing Them Softly” isn’t always successful in its objection against our modern society and politics. As a crime thriller though, there’s a lot to admire.
Those looking for a gangster movie more along the lines of Quentin Tarantino might be disappointed. This is a much more toned-down, straightforward project that lacks any of Tarantino’s signature colorfulness. But even without the over-the-top dialog, clever plot twists and pulp of a Tarantino movie, “Killing Them Softly” is still a gritty and tense picture with a rich collection of characters. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie like this that isn’t shamelessly trying to be the next “Reservoir Dogs.”