Mark Reviews Movies

Killing Them Softly


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Andrew Dominik

Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 11/30/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 29, 2012

Here is the financial crisis of 2008 in microcosm, except with a group of thieves as the cause and a bunch of criminals attempting a solution (Depending on one's perspective, the "except" might be unnecessary in either observation—or both of them). The allegory of Killing Them Softly is unavoidable, given that writer/director Andrew Dominik fills in the gaps of his narrative with archival footage and sound bites of politicians—primarily George W. Bush and Barack Obama (a speech by the latter opens the film—the audience's thunderous applause and his words broken up by jarring moments of ambient music)—explaining how bad the national economy is, the reasons for its state, and the ideas for fixing the mess.

Meanwhile, the mob is having its own troubles after a couple of incompetent goons robs one of their poker games—an institution that, like the stock market in certain circles, is seen as sacred and incorruptible. Even though it has happened before, no one in the criminal organization believes anyone would have the testicular fortitude to pull off a heist again. They are unprepared for the possibility; afterwards, they are caught off-guard by how devastating the results are. Having heard of the loss of a sizeable amount of money, people within the organization are scared to do much of anything; their little economy has stalled. The powers that be need a remedy for their business to survive.

It's an intriguing connection, to be sure, and one that eventually drenches the story in the constant drip-drip of cynicism; it's also an unnecessary link, lending an air of false significance to what is at heart a simple story. Dominik's screenplay (adapting George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade) finds far more evocative ways of playing with this familiar world of mobsters and their fell deeds by exploring their individual downfalls and the conflict between the old-fashioned, take-no-prisoners and the more modern, restrained approaches to their illegal trade. This view of the politics of the criminal underworld stands on its own without the tie to the political machinations of the real world.

The film begins with a fairly lengthy prologue in which Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) learn of the scheme to rob the card game. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) runs his own illicit dealings from the back office of his dry cleaning business, and he has devised the perfect plan: Frankie and Russell raid the game, and the suspicion and blame will immediately go to Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who years before hired some guys to do the same thing. It was an inside job, and he got away with it. Recently, his ego got the better of him, and he joked about the robbery in front of a bunch of his peers.

Dominik takes his time with these characters, and we're allowed an impression of their miserable lives. This is especially true of the two inept thieves, who live in abject poverty and possess an undeserved sense of self-importance and bravado. At least Frankie seems to realize his desperate situation and sees the robbery as a chance of bettering himself.

At the moment, he's stuck in a catch-22 in which he cannot obtain a job unless he has a car and cannot get a car unless he has a job. Russell, on the other hand, has delusions of unlawful glory involving a strategy of stealing and in turn selling pure-bred dogs; the end goal is to be able to buy enough heroin to start dealing in drugs. Frankie is a decent-enough guy; he even sticks up for Russell when Johnny suggests he's not the right man for this job. It's a misplaced loyalty—useless and ultimately deadly, like all the other examples of attempts at some warped sense of nobility that pervade the rest of the film.

The theft—a truly tense scene—is successful, and the mob calls in Jackie (Brad Pitt), a man whom everyone in the business knows about but whom "few people know." He's an old-school enforcer (introduced by no less than Johnny Cash speaking of capital-A Apocalyptic matters on the soundtrack) in a business that now has people like an unnamed lawyer (Richard Jenkins) acting as the intermediary for less pleasant matters like ones that Jackie expedites. This is a mob that is squeamish about killing—too risky. Jackie doesn't see the point of the lawyer's first suggestion to give Markie a beating, since Jackie knows they're going to end up killing the guy anyway (Why waste the time or put Markie through the pain?).

Jackie is something of a relic, representing an outdated way of operating that is becoming more and more irrelevant as the mob tries to work within a model that aspires to more corporate standards. Even more a remnant of the glory days is Mickey (James Gandolfini), another enforcer whose life has come tumbling down after two stints in prison and another potentially in the works. The film's centerpiece is a pair of conversations between these two men—one who has reluctantly adapted to changing times and the other stuck in the past. Jackie wants to give his old acquaintance chance (There's that misplaced loyalty again). He also worries about killing Johnny himself, as the two know each other (Murder can be too emotional an experience for the aloof hitman).

The story unfolds as expected (One execution is shot in disturbingly lovely slow motion, blood and glass flying as rain drops explode off bullet casings), and Dominik's central metaphor does become a burden. Even so, Killing Them Softly is attentive to its characters' driving philosophies—allowing plenty of dialogue-heavy opportunities to reveal them—and challenges those oftentimes twisted principles under harsh, unforgiving circumstances.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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