Sunday, July 7, 2013
Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, Vincent Curatola
Running Time: 97 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are seen or heard so many times in the 2008-set gangster drama Killing Them Softly that they could reasonably share top billing with Brad Pitt and no one would think anything of it. Hardly a scene goes by where they're not either on the radio delivering a speech or stumping for themselves on TV. It's obvious what director Andrew Dominik was going for with his repeated attempts to connect the U.S. economic crisis of six years ago to the state of organized crime, even going so far as to update the setting of George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade, to do it. Too obvious. That it seems to be the only thing worth talking about speaks volumes about how distractingly prominent it is, which is a shame because the film isn't without its virtues and actually starts off really well. At best, it's an interesting experiment that again proves Brad Pitt isn't afraid to take chances, but it just runs out of narrative steam after a while, hardly amounting to much by the time the closing credits arrive.
It's the fall of 2008 and a whiny, "in over his head" Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and drug addict Russell (Ben Mendolsohn) are recruited by Mafia boss Johnny "Squirrel" Amato to hold up and rob Markie Trattman's (Ray Liotta) poker room. Since Markie robbed his own game to earn insurance money before with no repercussions, Squirrel figures he'd just be suspected again without getting off as easy this time around. Everything seems to go off without a hitch until hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is tipped off by a mob informant (Richard Jenkins) about what went down and he makes it it his mission to whack the party responsible, which isn't good news for Squirrel, Frankie, Russell, or even the falsely implicated Markie. He enlists the help of hitman Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini) to get the job done, but things get a little more complicated than expected.
When director Andrew Dominik focuses solely on the task at hand in developing this story and its characters, the results are surprisingly successful, especially in the film's engaging opening hour. When he turns his attention to overt symbolism and attempts to draw broad parallels between the country's financial collapse due to a lack of oversight and the political hiearachy within organized crime, the film fails miserably. Besides the comparison itself being somewhat of a stretch (at least in the context it's presented), Dominick just won't give the idea a rest, even when the heavy-handed allegorical flashiness is clearly detrimental, if not completely at odds, with the inherent grittiness of the material. The filmmakers probably would have been better off just setting this in 1974 and calling it Cogan's Trade since it does seem like that's what they really wanted to do the whole time, with the script basically shouting for it at points. If it's any relief, Roberta Flack's 70's hit does not at any point make a soundtrack appearance but the film's title is referenced through a memorable dialogue exchange that at least offers somewhat of a clue as to its meaning. I was satisfied, if completely unsurprised, by the explanation. But least that has more to do with an emotional crisis than a financial one.
A lot of interesting things occur within the opening hour, too many of them under-cut with reminders that IT'S 2008 AND THERE'S A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION COMING UP. In case you haven't heard. And hear you will. During the big hold-up. In the mobster's car radios. Everywhere. Do mobsters listen to talk radio? No matter. In this film they do it non-stop just so we get the message. The sad part is that most everything else works until the half-way point. President Bush's TV cameo aside, the big hold-up scene crackles with intensity and Scoot McNairy (who's the real lead here) is as impressive in this as we was in Argo last year, and just as unrecognizable as the bumbling, child-like Frankie. You almost feel sorry for a guy so clearly playing out of his league, while his partner in crime Russell is well played by a scary Mendelsohn as an unpredictably dangerous wildcard.
Pitt's role is much smaller than ads let on but also a lot cooler and more calculated, dressed in all black and making his intro to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." He makes a co-starring part seem larger and more important than it should on the strength of his charisma, used to menacing effect as Cogan. This also marks one of the final supporting performances in what was the increasingly prolific big screen career of the late James Gandolfini. And I'm glad there's still a few films of his still coming down the pike because he's much better than what he's saddled with here. As an aging, hot-headed hitman addicted to drugs and hookers he goes toe-to-toe with Pitt and more than holds his own, even if I'm completely uncertain as to the character's purpose in the story. It's right around this point that the film starts spinning its wheels and eventually limps over the finish line without much to show for it.
Less a crime drama than a thematic bludgeoning, the character-centric moments of Killing Them Softly are subtle, and at times even masterful. It's just a shame most of that is masked under a heavy load of pretension and overt symbolism. Being someone who's generally no big fan of mob movies in general, I was surprised how well the crime component played for me and how much potential it had, despite a myriad of issues that seemed fixable with a re-write or two. It was also impossible to market this as a "guy movie" since there's very little action to speak of and hardly a woman to be found. Even with a trimmed running time, calling this a tough sell is an understatement. Cited as a rare flop for Pitt, it isn't as worthless as you've heard, and at least undeserving of the "F" cinemascore rating thrust upon it by dejected audiences expecting an action thriller from the star. This is about as far from that as it gets, its meditative tone and style more closely resembling a crime film released in 1974 than 2008 or 2012. That's its biggest strength. Its weaknesses are scattered almost everywhere else, with its admittedly silly title actually representing the least of its problems.