“America is not a country, it’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”
The H-Bomb: After a Mob-run card game in New Orleans is held up by a pair of lowlifes, all the games in the area are shut down, which will undoubtedly cause the underworld’s entire financial structure to collapse. In order to set things right, the people behind the robbery have to be tracked down and dealt with accordingly, so the powers that be call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an efficient, reliable hitman who likes to kill his marks “softly” (from a distance, to avoid the begging, the crying, and all that other “embarrassing shit”). Complications arise as the Mob debates internally over who should get whacked, who shouldn’t get whacked, as well as from one of the robbers, a junkie who can’t keep his damn mouth shut about the stick up.
Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, who based his script from a novel by George V. Higgins, will probably stand alongside Killer Joe and The Master as being one of the great audience dividers of 2012. Those who praise it will champion its vivid depiction of the Mob’s inner-workings from the point-of-view of an enforcer, as well as its strong characterizations and potent violence. Those who dislike it will deride it for its confusing structure, its talky nature, its unsympathetic characters, and will overall just dismiss it by slapping it with the dreaded B-word, boring. I personally fall into neither camp, since, oddly enough, I agree partially with both camps.
Being that I’m familiar with (and a fan of) director Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Movie with the Ridiculously Long Title, I went into this picture anticipating it to be something of a slow burner. That said, it took me a while to really jell with this one. For roughly the first quarter of the film, we’re following a couple of dull, scuzzy shitbags who I truly did not give a crap about as they discuss such fascinating topics as selling dogs, dealing smack, and fucking ugly women from the classifieds. It was as though Dominik was trying to channel Tarantino’s writing style, while sorely lacking the ability to come up with dialogue that’s nearly as entertaining or memorable.
All of this is intercut with, at first, seemingly unrelated scenes about how low level Mobster, Markie (Ray Liotta, looking perpetually hung over) robbed his own card game a while back. This section of the film is choppy, difficult to follow, and frankly, almost lost me completely. However, once Pitt enters the picture, things do pick up substantially. He’s an actor who first caught my eye, and everyone else’s, in Twelve Monkeys, and he’s been worth paying attention to ever since. Here, he plays the cool-headed Cogan with assured nuance. We sense that he doesn’t really like his job, particularly the nasty part, but he is a consummate professional, and he has zero tolerance for fuck ups, even those made by people he considers friends.
The film remains dialogue heavy and leisurely paced when Pitt enters, but with his arrival we finally get characters who are somewhat interesting to watch and listen to, so overall the movie does improve immensely. Pitt aside, other noteworthy players include Richard Jenkins, who’s perfectly cast as a dweeby, Nervous Nelly Mob lawyer who acts as a go-between for Cogan and the Bosses, as well as James Gandolfini as another hitman, with an insatiable appetite for booze and hookers, who Cogan calls in to assist on the job. Gandolfini is fantastic and steals the scenes he’s in, but with the way his character’s subplot plays out, he does seem rather extraneous. For the sake of spoilers, I shall spill no more, it’s just that given the amount of screen-time he has, his appearance in the overall story is rendered rather pointless, which is disappointing.
The credible performances from the film’s solid cast is supported by the overall bleak tone that Dominik gives the proceedings. He does an exceptional job of making New Orleans look like a grim, ruined shell of a city (I felt like I needed to literally scrub the grit off of myself after seeing it), where it really feels like the only way anyone has a chance of getting ahead is by picking up a gun and robbing someone. The desperation of these characters, as well as the town itself, very much comes across.
Unfortunately, this leads me to an aspect of the film I truly didn’t care for. The events of the movie are set in 2008, against the backdrop of the U.S.’s economic meltdown, with which Dominik draws a parallel to the Mob’s financial crisis. I wouldn’t have minded a few subtle allusions to this, but there’s nothing subtle about Dominik’s approach as he practically beats us over the head with this subtext, constantly having news footage from the time playing on the TVs or the radios in the background. George W. Bush and Barack Obama get so much screen time that I felt like checking the end credits to see if they were actually billed with the rest of the cast. If people dislike the film for its slow pace, then the heavy handed metaphors are really going to be the icing on the cake.
So while Dominik may have gone overboard with the political allusions, he did nail the violence almost flawlessly. Every beating, every killing is effectively built up, then executed brutally. If there were any missteps made on this front, it would be with one shooting death that plays out in overly stylized slow motion that feels completely out of place with the otherwise low key, realistic style of the movie. But even though it doesn’t really belong, it’s definitely well done and grabs your attention.
It’s that kind of mixed criticism/compliment that pretty much reflects my feelings towards Killing Them Softly as a whole. I mildly enjoyed it and I moderately recommend it . . . with reservations. It’s a gangster film that’s slow, dialogue heavy, and requires more than little concentration. If you don’t know the names of all the characters, you will no doubt get very lost very quickly, as certain characters are talked about more than they’re actually seen, hence it demands a level of attention that not many audiences will be able, or willing, to give it. I was able, after too long a time, to get into it, but others in the screening I attended were not, and there were more than a few walk outs. If you enjoy dark, mature themed dramas, then take a risk and buy a ticket. Otherwise, wait till it hits a Redbox near you.