Andrew Dominik‘s latest mobster flick Killing Them Softly is a stylistic and relentless look at our country’s current economic climate and what the future holds. It’s far from subtle, dropping on-the-nose political dialogue and speeches every fifteen minutes, but that doesn’t entirely hurt the film or make its message less powerful. It just makes specific scenes a little distracting and stiff when they should be running smoothly and with more reservation. Killing Them Softly is still a potent and miraculously-shot mobster film with a driving performance from the always-on-the-money Brad Pitt.
Jackie (Brad Pitt) is an enforcer. When things get sticky they call him in and he cleans up the mess. Sometimes he opts to call in some outside help, like hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini), but he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and clean up a job himself, if needed.
His latest project is presented by an unnamed man (known as Driver, played by Richard Jenkins) and it involves Jackie cleaning up a card game heist done up sloppily and with a trail. Two complete idiots named Frankie and Russell (played effectively by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob card game and take off with the loot. Their plan is to frame the robbing on the runner of the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), because he once admitted to robbing one of his own games and making off with a stack of cash.
Things are going smoothly for the two dumb-asses, until one of them spills the beans to a friend, who happens to work for the same people that hired Jackie. Now, Jackie has been brought in to clean up the mess before Frankie and Russell get too far with the money.
Killing Them Softly is director Andrew Dominik‘s follow-up to the highly acclaimed western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I can already tell you now that if you didn’t have the patience for that film then there’s a high chance you won’t connect with Killing Them Softly. The two share a strong visual style, but both deal with their agendas a little differently. Jesse James tackles the overbearing life of fame via a traditional western setup that depicts the last days of the outlaw Jesse James, while Killing Them Softly breaks down America’s recent economic crisis, with a literal story about the collapse of the criminal economy.
Dominik doesn’t walk on subtle gestures here and he presents Killing Them Softly through an unconfused lens of purpose. He’s clearly trying to convey a message and he reminds you frequently with presidential speeches cutting into the scene through a car radio or even more bluntly with direct quotes dropping onto the film during the opening scene.
Some might find Dominik’s approach to be a little too on-the-nose, but I was only really bothered with it during a few brief moments. The opening wealth speech that plays in the background actually helps the film, because it sets up the bigger picture before really showing you the smaller one. What got me slightly irritated was the radio bits, because dialogue was purposely drowned out or given awkward pauses for a political speech to play on the radio. Characters would sit there for minutes, so that the audience could listen.
It’s slightly distracting, but I’d consider it a very small fraction of a problem when viewing the entire film as a whole.
The rest of Killing Them Softly is dominating and unflinching. Dominik gives each and every scene a distinctive look that echoes other gangster classics like Goodfellas or Casino. His use of slow-mo should be put on display for all future directors working in the field, because not once does it feel like a quick gimmick or over-used post-production add-on. It’s always used to help reveal details in a scene or to drive the importance of a character.
Without delving too much into the plot it is worth mentioning that almost all of the characters are of high importance that helps lead to the eventual outcome. Brad Pitt plays Jackie with a cold focus on business. Jackie rarely displays emotion, aside from anger or happiness once a job is done or almost complete. Pitt reminds everybody that he’s still an Oscar contender and that he’s not afraid to get violent and heartless when he needs to be.
James Gandolfini approaches the role of Mickey with a lot of stubbornness that isn’t presented in the trailer and I think I’m going to hold off on discussing the importance of his character and more specifically his character’s interactions with Jackie, until a later date. The two essentially represent the two different classes of people that Dominik is unfolding and I can’t delve into it too much without ruining some crucial plot points, so wait for a future write up!
Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn deserve the most credit playing the pair of sleazy and empty-brained fools that rob the protected card game. Scoot’s Frankie almost makes you feel sympathetic towards his situation, but then Mendelsohn’s smelly and repulsive Russell quickly pops up onto the screen to remind you that everything is a result of clear choices made by each character.
Andrew Dominik‘s political agenda might budge in and take over what could have been an otherwise straight-forward mobster affair, but I’m almost glad that he decided to take the film in this direction. It makes for layers and while most of them are obvious and forceful, it still makes for important and relevant discussion, even though the film might exaggerate at times. Even if you strip that trait from the film you’re still left with a ruthless work of art that captures that uncompromising violence that we look for in mobster films, plus Dominik’s signature camerawork that makes a good thing look great.
Killing Them Softly – 9.5/10