“Killing Them Softly” is a super-violent crime noir film, reminiscent of last year’s great “Drive,” which finds a pretty creative way to tell a generally conventional gangster story. It’s when it moves beyond that that it runs into trouble.
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik and adapted from a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins- who also wrote the source material for the crime classic “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”- “Killing Them Softly” stars Brad Pitt, alongside such gangster movie perennials as Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini. The plot is pretty straightforward: Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are small-time, ne’er-do-well criminals, working for mid-level gangster/dry cleaner Johnny (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sack from The Sopranos.)
After they execute a plan to rob a card game hosted by Liotta, the overseeing mob organization brings in a philosophical hitman (Pitt), as well as a less stable, hooker-loving sub-contractor (Gandolfini) to clean things up. Also on hand is a mob type (Richard Jenkins), who’s more corporate middleman than gangster, and Sam Shepard, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as the mob boss
. The crime stuff is all great, buoyed by strong performances, great dialogue, and cinematography that’s arty but very creative. The cast is especially a strength. Pitt, grunging it up a bit with ugly facial hair, gives a memorably off-kilter performance, while Jenkins is just wonderful, especially considering he’s not the first name that comes to mind when one hears “mobster.” McNairy (one of the hostages from “Argo”) and Mendolsohn are also very good, carrying the movie’s first third as bumbling criminals.
But it’s the duo of Sopranos alums that really steals the show. Gandolfini, playing not the boss but a low-level sad sack, has a couple of really great monologues, and delivers an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance despite only being on screen for about ten minutes. He also gets to deliver my favorite apropos-of-nothing line of the year: “Ain’t no piece of ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who’s hookin.'” I think we used to say that in Hebrew school.
Then there’s Curatola, who was always one of the most entertaining members of The Sopranos ensemble, but like most of the show’s cast, he’s only worked in little-seen gangster films since it went off the air. But he shines here, bringing the short-fuse intensity familiar to Johnny Sack fans. The one place the film steps wrongly is with its subtext, which it keeps turning into text.
The film is set in the fall of 2008, during both the depths of the financial meltdown and the presidential election, so TVs and radios in the background throughout are tuned to speeches by George W. Bush, Hank Paulson and eventually Obama. It ties into the plot, too, with talk about the value of money and labor and whether or not it’s all built on a false foundation. I don’t object to tying that stuff into a crime drama. But the movie overdoes it in a serious way. The connection is made clear enough by the plot and dialogue itself; the film doesn’t need to spend the last ten minutes beating us over the head with the point. Some subtlety would have worked better.
(Another film this month, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” is set in the same three-month time period as “Killing Them Softly.” But in that movie, nobody gives a crap about the financial crisis or election- only the Philadelphia Eagles.)
Dominik’s previous film, which also starred Pitt, was “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which has its fans, but I found one of the most boring films of the decade. The thing I remember most about it is that someone created an Internet video re-enacting the final scene with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, which managed to go viral even though almost no one has seen the original film.
But “Killing Them Softly” is much better, an exciting effort in which the skilled storytelling ultimately trumps the often ham-fisted political commentary.