One of the quickest ways to insure that I will pay no heed to your opinions is to insert your political affiliation and beliefs into a decidedly non-political conversation. Recently a friend of mine posted a Facebook status asking for advice as to where she should go on vacation, to which some twit responded, “Just stick to a red state.” Despite living in a red state and at least vaguely supporting the general ideas that tend to fall into the “red state” category, I would like to punch said twit in the face for bringing his personal politics into a conversation that most certainly did not involve them. So it is with Killing Them Softly, a giant and droll political sermon disguising itself as a crime drama, and a film that I would like to punch squarely in the face. Set against the backdrop of 2008 Detroit, Killing Them Softly centers around Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a small time crook looking for an easy score. Through an associate he comes across a job holding up a mob-run poker game overseen by Markie (Ray Liotta). Of course no one is stupid enough to knock over a mob game but here’s the catch: a few years earlier, Markie hired a crew to hold up one of his own games, a move that earned him a sizeable profit but the distrust of those around him. If Frankie and his partner Russell (Ben Mendolsohn) can pull the job correctly, the blame will be placed on Markie, leaving Frankie to get off clean. But, as will happen with this sort of thing, the job goes sideways and before long Frankie finds himself at odds with hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) and the group he works for.
In an effort to be fair, let’s first have a look at the positives that Killing Them Softly brings to the table. Namely, Brad Pitt is excellent. This is a good role for him, one that allows him to show off the charisma that makes him such an appealing lead but which requires him to get a little grimier than he usually gets. Jackie is a cool customer who pines for the good old days when, as he would have the audience believe, things were more civilized. In another life he might have been a decent guy to hang out with but years of killing for a living and hanging around in this crowd has left him only half human. It’s a quality role and Pitt plays it well. McNairy, too, hits all the right marks, albeit in a smaller role than I envisioned going in. Fresh off a fabulous turn in Argo, McNairy is putting together a solid resume for himself that one can imagine will only lead to bigger and better things in the very near future. On top of these performances, some of the shots, particularly the (few) action sequences within Killing Them Softly are gorgeously captured and put together. These scenes serve as a reminder that director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) has real talent behind the camera.
The rest of the film, however, is a total waste. The opening credits are obnoxious and come jam packed with so much political vigor that I almost immediately thought to myself, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” I guess I should thank Dominik for letting it be known so quickly what Killing Them Softly would be all about; whatever I might have imagined for the film coming in, within five minutes or so it became clear that what I would be getting is a sermon and there’s no attempt to hide this. Even still, the heavy-handedness of the background statements are so strong as to completely and totally overwhelm any other point the film might have been trying to make, leaving me to wonder why I didn’t just stay home and watch CNN or listen to Glenn Beck. Dominik hammers his point over and over, bringing to mind the old saying about beating a dead horse, only by the end I felt like the dead horse.
But don’t leave here today thinking that the overtly and embarrassingly political nature of Killing Them Softly is the only real problem. No, instead this repetitive drum banging only serves to distract from the films other flaws of which there are MANY. Namely, it’s exceedingly boring. I enjoy a good slow burn (which I expected this movie to be) but in actuality, this is closer to a no burn. NOTHING HAPPENS. It’s a wonder that Killing Them Softly even got a wide release because it feels like the sort of art house feature that a few critics love but the masses never bother with. There are multiple scenes that could have and should have been scrapped altogether and do absolutely nothing to further the plot. Moreover, entire characters have no reason to exist within this narrative. James Gandolfini plays a prominent role and yet (and I am not exaggerating here) his character accomplishes and adds, literally, NOTHING. He flies in town to do a job, he acts like a tool, he doesn’t do his job and then OFF CAMERA his character gets in trouble and has to bail. I’m still scratching my head as to what purpose his character was supposed to hold. The music often feels forced and comes across as just plain annoying after a while. Killing Them Softly drags painfully, too, somehow making 97 minutes seem like three hours. For once I can forgive the rude moviegoer in the row in front of me who spent the entire back half of the film playing with his phone because, quite frankly, I was doing the same thing. Then there’s the matter of that pesky title which is downright terrible. Of course I knew going in that the title was bad but once I actually sat through this thing its horribleness struck me even more. Unless the title was meant to be foreshadowing for what this film would do to its audience, in which case Killing Them Softly hit the nail on the head.
Killing Them Softly Director: Andrew Dominik Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Richard Jenkins Rated: R (Heavy and suggestive language, moments of harsh violence, general awfulness…) Recommended For: 17+ hardcore indie movie buffs