As angry as any film you’ll see this year, but also probably as entertaining at the same time, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a movie that works on multiple levels. Some might only see an effective and enjoyable mob tale, and some filmmakers might have been content to stop there, but others will no doubt notice and likely appreciate the political commentary on display here by writer/director Andrew Dominik. Already with a growing following as a filmmaker, Dominik has made a much smaller flick in scale than his prior work ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, but like that movie he’s crafted a visually stimulating and unique film. He’s also working again with Brad Pitt and makes the case that they should continue working together for the foreseeable future. Pitt is captivating in one of the crucial roles of what almost is an ensemble film. Dominik is doing a lot of things here, trying to get you to be angry, to be amused, and maybe even shocked, sometimes in the same scene, so it was essential to ground the work with solid acting, and he has that in spades. ‘Killing Them Softly’ doesn’t just want to take on mob warfare and justice, it wants to take on capitalism and politics in America. As Pitt’s character says at one point “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business”. That quote pretty much sums the movie up, and when the film opens, you’ll just how successful it is and hammering that point home.
The film begins in the days leading up the Presidential election of 2008, and in fact we begin with a speech by then candidate Barack Obama. You see signs everywhere for either Obama or his opponent John McCain, and anytime you see a television on or a radio, they’re listening to either a campaign speech or news on the economy from then President George W Bush. While that might have been all that was on many people’s minds then, for the men of this movie, money is on their minds as well. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) knows of a foolproof plan to make money, and he recruits the desperate Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his junkie partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) for it. Johnny knows of a private card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), and he also knows that Markie once knocked over his own game and lived to tell about it, so if they pull that same job, they figure that Markie will get the blame and they’ll be off scot-free. They do the job and it appears that they’re on easy street, but it’s not long before the associates of a mysterious man (Richard Jenkins) start investigating. They call in respected enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt), who suggests just killing Markie and the lot. There’s initial resistance, as the mob seems to operate like a corporation these days, but eventually some progress is made. It’s not that simple though, and in the case of Johnny, since Jackie knows him personally, he insists on bringing in the once legendary Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help out (he doesn’t like to know his victims, he likes to “kill them softly”, as it were). Mickey’s descended into a haze of alcohol and depression though, so he’s less help than anticipated. Nothing is as clear cut as they’d hope though, so Jackie has to clean up the mess however he can. All the while, this vengeance over maybe 50 grand plays out while we hear about the large scale theft of literally trillions of dollars in the background by Wall Street. It’s a lot to take on, especially considering that honestly doesn’t sound like too much of a plot, but everyone is up to the challenge.
Brad Pitt may not have the most screen time of the cast, but he certainly makes the most of it. Whenever Pitt is in the frame, the film has an added energy that boosts it to a whole other level. His character may be a glorified hit man for the mob, but he has an intelligence that shows that he’s more than he appears. I’m not sure voters will see enough there to consider him for Best Actor (or even Best Supporting Actor, where he’d possibly even fit in better), but just in terms of performance quality, he deserves some attention. James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins both turn in real good supporting performances as well, playing two very different sides of a similar coin. As for Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, they take a bit of getting used to, but by the second half of the film they have you roped in. Ray Liotta manages to be perhaps more sympathetic than ever before, while Sam Shepard, Vincent Curatola, and Slaine make solid use of their limited time on the screen. The rest of the cast also includes Max Casella and Trevor Long, but Brad Pitt is who you’ll leave the theater talking about. Gandolfini, Jenkins, Mendelsohn, and McNairy do fine work, but Pitt is the one at the top of the pile, in more ways than one.
Though not nearly as flashy as his last movie, I’d argue that Andrew Dominik is doing even more accomplished work here, as he managed to infuse what would be a simple mafia movie with a much deeper political resonance. Dominik the director and Dominik the writer are able to perfectly suggest that these lowlifes fighting over stolen card game money are a suitable representation for the murderous capitalist tendencies that sent America to the brink of ruin in 2008. Deeply cynical of anyone’s ability to change the system, both in terms of the mob and politics itself, Dominik makes a damning case for everyone just being in over their heads. It’s very impressive stuff. I’m not sure how much of George V. Higgins’ novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ remains, but Dominik is at the top of his game in taking the material and crafting a tightly paced and important film out of it. I’d love to see him honored with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Almost every scene is better than the last one, and Dominik ends things on a pitch perfect note. It may actually be my favorite ending of the year so far.
‘Killing Them Softly’ is likely to be misunderstood by too many Academy members to really be a good bet for Best Picture, but I do hope that this flick isn’t fully ignored by voters. It’s very unique and truly something to behold. I can’t wait to be able to talk more about it when opening day arrives at the end of the month. For many of you, this will be this year’s ‘Drive’. For me, it’s just another great film that’s challenging for a spot on my 2012 Top 10 list. Yes, it’s just that good. ‘Killing Them Softly’ has as much to say about the American Dream as any film has in a very long time, and while it’s not necessarily a message that many would like to hear, it’s one that helps to craft an often brilliant motion picture. This one comes about as highly recommend as possible. It’s nearly essential viewing.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!