Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with some thoughts on Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a crime picture about the repercussions of a high dollar mob-run poker game robbery.
It was a surefire bet, this film. Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, also starring Brad Pitt, is gorgeous, touching, well-acted and just experimental enough to make an old genre feel fresh on the screen. It’s not perfect, but it’s a substantial movie.
So when I left the theater unimpressed by Killing Them Softly it was a bit of a surprise to me. Like Jesse James, it’s a good looking picture. Like Jesse James, there’s a nice experimental edge to the movie. Like Jesse James, Brad Pitt is pretty great in the film.
The movie’s not bad, but it was disappointingly on the nose. Set during the 2008 election, when the US economy was falling into the shitter, there’s an overt political parallel that would have benefited from being in the background instead of almost a narration of the events of the movie. It felt like Dominik didn’t trust the audience to pick up on the similarities between political and gangster bureaucracy, so we have to start the movie on a shot of side-by-side Obama/McCain campaign billboards and have political speeches overlaying every other scene.
But subtle isn’t exactly the name of the game in this movie. When Brad Pitt, an expert hitman brought in to figure out the identity of the robbers, comes in they play Johnny Cash’s When The Man Comes Around. See, because he’s the man and he’s comin’ around.
I usually like it when films go big like that, but for whatever reason in this film every time they did it felt forced to me. Minus that little trip-up, everything with Pitt is golden. You buy him as the ultimate fixer that knows his shit, can figure out every angle and is just as adept at political maneuvering as he is at exploding some poor bastard’s head.
My main trouble with the movie is that it’s ultimately a very small story that would be fine if they didn’t waste so much time on the two hoods, an Australian bum and a thick-accented Bah-stin type that would usually be played by an Affleck.
These two guys, played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn make the first impression of the film as their hiring is what kicks off the plot. I wish I could love them both because if I did then I would be writing a glowing review instead of a “yeah, it’s good, but I’m not in love with it…” review.
Of the two, McNairy actually grew on me because there was a resolution for his character so it feels like the time I invested in him went somewhere. He has some scenes towards the end of the movie where I understood why he was cast. The over-the-top cartoon he was playing earlier disappears into an honest to God empathetic character. Mendelsohn never gets to cross that line. He starts as a dickish druggie loser and ends a dickish druggie loser. It’s a one-note character and unfortunately it was a note that I didn’t much care for.
If these characters were the focus of the movie then I’d be frothing at the mouth angry, but if there’s one thing Dominik got right it’s the supporting cast.
Even though looking at the film objectively they could have lost every scene James Gandolfini is in, completely excise his character from the film, and the plot wouldn’t change one iota, Gandolfini is so good that I was happy every second he was in the film.
Ray Liotta gives probably the best supporting performance in the film as the patsy, a pathetic specimen that is just smart enough to execute some really stupid ideas. He gets beat to hell and back in the film and it’s an interesting twist for Liotta who usually plays the one giving the beatings, not receiving them. He plays his character like a big dumb dog and somehow becomes the most sympathetic person in the movie.
And then there’s Richard Jenkins, who has grown into one of my favorite working character actors over the last few years. He plays a kind of middle man between the big bosses, who want the robbery situation dealt with, and Pitt’s Jackie Coogan. He’s uptight, over-worked and easily stressed… in other words it’s the perfect role for Richard Jenkins. He’s the character that most obviously connects the government/mob parallel since he can’t authorize anything without getting a board’s approval and it forces Jackie Coogan’s job to slow to a crawl.
Like I mentioned above, Dominik’s filmmaking work is top notch, I just didn’t like a some of the character work and casting choices he made. Visually it’s a very inventive, sharp and bloody film, it’s just one that took about half an hour for me to start investing in.
Mixed reviews are the hardest to write because if you focus too much on what didn’t work it sounds like you flat-out hate the movie and if you focus too much on what does work it sounds like you liked the movie and are just nitpicking it or looking for an excuse to not like it.
Killing Them Softly is the first movie of the fest that I went into expecting to love and felt let down by. I mean, Dracula 3D is awful, but I didn’t expect it to be genius. Killing Them Softly worked enough to not piss me off, but didn’t send me out of the theater whooping and hollering like I was expecting it to.
Ah, well. Maybe it’ll grow on me with a second viewing.