Review: The Pros and Cons of ‘Killing Them Softly’

“America’s not a country. It’s just a business.” –Brad Pitt earns his Junior Cynic badge

killing-them-softly-poster

Inferno Distribution

Killing Them Softly (2012):

The Plot: When two dumb criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob-run card game, hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) gets called in to clean things up. Also, it’s 2008, and organized crime is totally a metaphor for America’s economic recession. It’s not a very good metaphor, which is why this movie has to work so hard to include some political stuff. Unless mobsters in a strangely featureless post-Katrina New Orleans are all really, really into watching the news and listening to talk radio.

This movie is based on a novel by George V. Higgins. The novel, entitled Cogan’s Trade, is set in Boston in 1974. Why the change? Well, as I said earlier, the film tries super hard to draw a comparison between the mob and the American economy. Recession! Even the mob is on hard times! It’s all just business! It all looks good on paper, but the execution would have benefitted from some subtlety. Or any subtlety at all, which brings us to my first Pro and Con:

Pro: The film tries to be something more than just a standard mob/hit man movie.

Con: It fails.

Killing them Softly feels like it’s trying to be a generation-defining mob movie, but it’s either aiming too high or doesn’t throw hard enough. Native New Zealander Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), who wrote and directed the film, apparently feels very strongly about the state of America’s economy in 2008. This subtext is present in what seems like every other scene, on TVs and radios playing in the background. Again, it’s an interesting parallel, but one that the audience needs to figure out on their own. If your point is that the mob is run like a corporation, just show us. By the time we get to Brad Pitt’s passionate explanation of why the American Dream is dead, the whole idea feels like the rant of a college freshman halfway through his first poly-sci course.

AMERICA IS BROKEN!!!1!

Inferno Distribution
AMERICA IS BROKEN!!!1!

And to top it all off, the soundtrack is almost entirely made up of songs that state what’s happening on screen. It’s weird. Like, when a character is high on heroin, they play The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”

Hey, you made it seem earlier that the movie at least functions as a standard mob/hit man story. I did, which brings me to the second Pro and Con:

Pro: The characters actually feel very real.

Con: The movie doesn’t know what to do with them.

There’s a decent slice-of-life mob movie beneath all the sophomoric political crap. Some of the dialogue definitely goes for a Tarantino feel, with criminals talking about sex and crime and stuff. Okay, when I put it that way it sounds pretty dumb, but it totally works, for the most part. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) plays a suit-wearing middle management-type for the mob, and his scenes with Brad Pitt are wryly funny. It’s nice seeing the “crime as a business” thing played for laughs.

It's funnier in context.

Inferno Distribution
It’s funnier in context.

Most (I’ll clarify that in a bit) of the characters are well-cast, and there are some moments where they actually feel like real people. Unfortunately, the film has a tendency to go too far with pretty much everything. A prime example would be James Gandolfini’s character, a hit man whose troubles with the wife have sent him into a downward spiral of alcoholism and prostitutes. That’s all well and good, but every scene with him goes on for at least two minutes longer than it should, and none of them add much to the rest of the film.

It doesn’t help that although Brad Pitt’s character is conceptually interesting and has some good dialogue, Pitt’s performance doesn’t really add all that much beyond bad hair and star power. I might not be giving him enough credit, but saying “ain’t” and acting calm about murder doesn’t necessarily equate depth. Jackie Cogan is clearly intended to be the product of America’s failing economy; a hardened cynic who’s only looking out for himself. The fact that he pretty much tells us this in the film’s final scene lessens any impact the metaphor might have had.

So there you have it. The film’s politics are half-baked at best, the execution ham-fisted to the point of being annoying.

Oh, one last Pro and Con:

Pro: The violence is gritty and well-used.

Con: Poor Ray Liotta.

Go easy on me, I've had a rough time since 'Goodfellas.'

Inferno Distribution
Go easy on me, I’ve had a rough time since ‘Goodfellas.’

 

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