The storyline of “Killing Them Softly” sounds like something straight out of Martin Scorsese’s playbook but it is the execution (pun intended) that makes it a singular experience. The title may recall the name of Roberta Flack’s most famous song, but instead of being about metaphorical love, the movie is a cynical anti-thriller allegory about America’s economic crisis.
Set in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, just as he passed the baton to Barack Obama in 2008, the movie begins with two small time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) hired by crime boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a secret, high-stakes poker game overseen by low level mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The criminal corporation responsible for the game suspects Trattman, but brings in no-nonsense enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to get to the bottom of the situation.
“Killing Them, Softly” isn’t your godfather’s gangster movie. Talky, deliberate and willfully obtuse, it is less a crime thriller than it is a wordy mediation on recession-era life in the underworld and beyond. The movie’s point-of-view is reinforced by wild sound news broadcasts that pepper the soundtrack and long conversations between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mouthpiece for the criminal organization who seems to be terminally tied up by red tape.
Their scenes and back-and-forth are the film’s most entertaining moments. The humdrum tone belies their conversation’s deadly subject matter and is played to great effect. And that is the beauty of this movie.
Director Andrew “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” Dominik’s visual flair keeps things interesting—a druggy conversation between Frankie and Russell is masterfully represented—but it is the actors who provide the spark.
Liotta brings real pathos to Markie the unfortunate scapegoat and McNairy and Mendelsohn both have a small time reek about them but as strong as they are, its Pitt, Jenkins and James Gandolfini who will linger in your memory.
Jenkins is an anonymous bureaucrat, a cog in the wheel that helps his criminal organization go round, and underplays the role beautifully. The temptation may have been to dirty the character up a bit, but Jenkins plays him straight as a man whose business dirty, but a business nonetheless.
Gandolfini is as wild as Jenkins is buttoned-down. A hitman for hire, he’s more interested in call girls and booze than killing people. It’s hard not to see echoes of Tony Soprano in this troubled killer, but Gandolfini is too skilled to repeat himself. His menace is tempered by self-doubt, and his scenes with Pitt shine.
At the helm, however, is Pitt. Heralded to screen by Johnny Cash’s “When The Man Comes Around,”—”There’s a man going round taking names / And he decides who to free and who to blame.”—he’s a pragmatic psychopath, a ruthless killer who doesn’t like the up-close-and-personal stuff. “I like to kill them softly,” he says. “From a distance; not close enough for feelings.” It’s a complex character, one defined in this movie by his words and not his actions, and Pitt handles it effortlessly.
“Killing Them Softly” won’t be for everyone. More brains than brawn it is about the tension of knowing what’s coming next, and while it does deliver in its violent scenes, it is a film that values ideas more than action. It’s edgy stuff, well handled by Dominik—although using the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” to intro an injection scene seems too standard for a movie like this—but will leave many viewers wondering when Brad Pitt will lose the art house pretentions and get back into the blockbuster business.