REVIEW: 'Killing Them Softly"
Some of the best movies ever made have been about criminals. The Godfather, The Departed, Drive – all of them follow characters who break the law, often in a stirring, dramatic way. Andrew Dominik’s latest film Killing Them Softly is also about criminals, but it has a crucial flaw: there’s no one else to relate to.
We see a parade of evil (and slightly less evil) people committing crimes, but there are no innocent victims for these people to harm, no witnesses to hold these people to account. These bad guys wander around in a broken, decrepit American city, left to talk intensely in criminal slang and later kill each other. Killing Them Softly is a bleak film that takes far too long to get to the point, and even when Dominik finally makes his argument, there’s no payoff.
In an unidentified city in 2008, a crooked drycleaner owner (Vincent Curatola) comes up with a plot to rob a Mob poker game. He convinces two dim-witted career criminals to pull off the heist, and makes it look like the local gang leader organized it. The faceless Mob bosses want their money back and the perpetrators killed, so they send in their hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) to investigate and kill the thieves.
I’d continue the plot summary, but that’s about all there is. There are hints of an underlying narrative (suggested by the appearance of an aging hitman played by James Gandolfini). The thieves (as I already said) are kind of dumb, so it doesn’t take long for Jackie catch them. And after all that, there’s not much point to it all. People get beaten and shot, and Jackie collects his fee.
It’s not that the inner lives of criminals aren’t interesting. It’s that most of the time, their actions need to have some reflection on the rest of society, so we can care about what happens to them. The spark for the whole story, the robbery of the Mob poker game, inspires little sympathy from the audience. This is not a wrong against a group of innocent people that needs righting. It’s a theft of illegally-earned money from other criminals. I found myself thinking, “Boo hoo! Poor gangsters, they lost their money!”
Following the heist and the introduction of Pitt’s hitman character, there’s a lot of tense, dialogue-heavy scenes where criminals banter back and forth or listen to each others’ woes. These drawn-out scenes, while well-written, don’t capture your attention or leave you wanting more. Dominik makes clever use of slang and euphemisms, sometimes to layer the neuroses and quirks of the characters, but more often to cover up the fact that not much is going on in his script.
I found myself making a lot of comparisons between this movie and Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, especially the main character. Jackie, like Refn’s Driver, is a mystery. We learn nothing of his past, and little about his personality, other than the fact that he takes his job of killing people seriously, and that he doesn’t like to get close to the person he’s going to kill.
Apparently it’s hard to get right up next to someone and pull the trigger. Once again, I had little sympathy. If you’re the kind of person who kills for money, I don’t think being squeamish about face-to-face assassinations is a redeeming character trait.
But Dominik is tireless in building the tension. He escalates the violence and piles up dead bodies until we get to the final scene. Here Jackie makes his ultimate argument about his understanding of America, all while Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech plays on the TV. Jackie has the pessimistic view that America is only about getting paid, that it’s not the unified community Obama believes in.
That’s fine, but once again I asked, so what? With no characters offering a contrary viewpoint, and an immediate cut to credits following Jackie’s speech, the film comes to a screeching halt before it can properly explore the idea. It’s one of several pacing problems in a film that struggles to justify itself to the audience - no matter how much style and false importance Dominik injects into the film. Killing Them Softly gets two stars out of four.
What did you think about Killing Them Softly? Did you get drawn into Dominik’s bleak underworld, or did you also notice the lack of substance in the film? Post your reaction in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent reviews here:
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