Killing Them Softly (United States, 2012)

November 29, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Killing Them Softly Poster

Killing Them Softly is 2012's answer to Mean Streets. With a similarly uncompromising, gritty aesthetic to early Scorsese, Andrew Dominik's adaptation of George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade takes a decidedly unglamorous look at the lives of small-time crooks, low-level mob functionaries, and hit men. Set in the impoverished neighborhoods of a post-Katrina New Orleans blasted by urban blight, the movie transpires in 2008 against the backdrop of the Wall Street financial collapse and Barak Obama's election. With a style that depicts every bloody moment of one of the most disturbingly graphic beatings in recent history, Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) weaves a tale that is compulsively watchable with long passages of dialogue, instances of scathing black humor, and sequences that are ripe with tension.

Many may find the pacing of Killing Them Softly to be too slow for their liking. The film's approach is deliberate, shifting from one group of characters to another in an unhurried fashion. The focus is on dialogue rather than action. Conversations aren't merely laced with profanity; they're drenched in it. The aforementioned beating is so extreme and graphic that some viewers may be forced to look away. Later, however, a hit is depicted in an almost balletic fashion: carefully choreographed and filmed with almost loving detail. Dominik uses a hand-held camera for many shots but the images are rock solid. No shaking here, effectively dispelling the myth that viewer nausea is mandatory for an intimate perspective.

Killing Them Softly opens with a robbery masterminded by wiseguy Squirrel (Vincent Curatola). Two amateur thugs, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelshohn), hit a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a connected guy with a checkered past. Driver (Richard Jenkins), a spokesperson for the northeastern corporate-types who run the local mob, calls in expert hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort out the situation and eliminate the miscreants. Jackie determines what needs to be done but is irked because his every move has to be approved by a committee. And, when he recruits another assassin, Mickey (James Gandolfini), to help with the job, the decision proves to be ill-advised.

The most unconventional aspect of Killing Them Softly is the banality with which it treats murder-for-hire. This is just another career opportunity for those who live on society's underbelly. Jackie is as cynical as they get - he blasts Obama's rhetoric about unity and change as being empty and pointless. Because of the recession, he is forced to accept a discounted fee for his jobs. Police are treated as ineffective and largely irrelevant. The film takes the next step in the demythologizing of mob activities begun with Scorsese and continued with David Chase. The presence of Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini forcefully reminds viewers of Goodfellas and The Sopranos.

Brad Pitt, who isn't afraid of unglamorous roles, has little difficulty donning Jackie's skin. Pitt's performance makes Jackie an enigma: charismatic and charming but callous and deadly. When determining Markie's fate, Jackie argues against a beating in favor of a straightforward murder. "Why put him through [the physical suffering]?" In his view, Markie is going to be whacked, so why not just do it? He exudes calm and confidence, never panicking and never without a Plan B.

Effective supporting performances abound. James Gandolfini's Mickey makes Tony Soprano seem like a well-adjusted family man. Mickey is a loathsome character - a one-time top hit man who has lost his edge and is drowning in a whirlpool of alcohol-fueled self-pity. Richard Jenkins epitomizes the "new mob" - a direct refutation of how things were done in The Godfather days. Ray Liotta gets a chance not to froth at the mouth and go over the top, reminding us, if only for this one performance, that he can be a capable actor. Scoot McNairy provides a compelling portrait of desperation: a criminal who will do almost anything to survive.

The audience for Killing Them Softly is likely to be limited. Even some who generally enjoy gangster films may be turned off by this one, with its focus on dialogue over action and its harsh style. Watching Killing Them Softly can be an uncomfortable experience. However, while such an overdose of nihilism may not be to everyone's taste, this is an example of how it can be done efficiently and effectively.

Killing Them Softly (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2012-11-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1