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Review: Killing Them Softly – Poorly executed crime drama

Posted by on November 30, 2012 – 12:03 am

Killing Them Softly© 2012 The Weinstein Co.
What does the economic turmoil leading up to the 2008 election contest between John McCain and Barack Obama have to do with small-time hoods knocking over a mob backed poker game? Not much really, but the makers of the new film Killing Them Softly half-heartedly strive to make some sort of symbolic connection between those events and not even Brad Pitt can bailout this poorly executed crime drama.

Killing Them Softly is based on the 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade, by attorney turned author George V. Higgins. But the way in which the script by writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is actualized onto the screen is more akin to a stage play than a motion picture, in that most of the movie takes place in stagnate settings with lots of dialogue between a handful of mildly interesting characters.

Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) talks Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) into robbing a high-stakes poker game that is frequented by the local gangsters. The game is sponsored by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who once robbed his own game but somehow walked away unscathed by the mob patrons. According to Squirrel’s plan, Markie should take the fall for any subsequent robbery of the game and the trio of dimwitted thieves will walk away with the money scot-free.

Everything goes according to plan until the mob brings in hit-man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to rectify the situation. Jackie is a smooth operator and apparently the only person in this story with any brains; and before you can say “forgetaboutit” he figures out who the real culprits are and puts together a plan to rub them out.

Killing Them Softly© 2012 The Weinstein Co.
Jackie decides, against the mob’s wishes (which are represented by actor Richard Jenkins as simply, the Driver), that Markie needs to go too, even though he is innocent – this time; and another problem is that Squirrel knows Jackie from a previous mob misadventure, so he brings in another enforcer, Mickey (James Gandolfini ), to off the real mastermind of the poker game robbery and from this point on the movie begins to unravel.

A good portion of this film’s very short (97 min) running time is spent on conversation between Jackie (Pitt) & Mickey (Gandolfini), and I’m fine with that; the parlay is somewhat amusing (although writer Dominik tries way too hard to give his words the weight of a Tarantino dialogue.) The problem is that all this time spent between the two gangsters never leads to anything; Mickey disappears from the story and Jackie has to kill Squirrel himself, leaving one wondering what the problem was in the first place.

The Mickey issue isn’t the only loose end in this picture; we’re never certain what happens with Russell and in fact the film’s entire finale is a loose end, as if Andrew Dominik was befuddled by his own story and didn’t know where else to go with it – so he just stopped it.

Killing Them Softly© 2012 The Weinstein Co.
Killing Them Softly certainly has a style and low-key rhythm (accompanied by a great soundtrack) that is interesting and I understand that Dominik was trying to do something artistic with the gangster genre, but he just doesn’t deliver on the film’s promise. The director has the tools and the talent, but not the discipline in order to cohesively put his vision together. As for the allegory on the economy, yeah I get it, but it’s a real stretch.

Pitt is fine as the killer who dislikes all the messiness, like the crying and the begging and the pants soiling, that comes with his chosen trade; but his performance is nothing to rave about and the Jackie character was really not very new or interesting. There is a small cameo by Sam Shepard as a local mob enforcer, but the camera is hardly even close enough to recognize the veteran actor and half of his short screen time is spent not on the screen – which is a pitiful waste.

Killing Them Softly has some great talent and an interesting concept, but in the end I expected a lot more out of this film. It is mostly style and very little substance and you’ll likely walk away feeling cheated out of your movie money – so maybe the parable on the economy wasn’t that far off after all. Grade: 4/10