Killing Them Softly, three opportunists, Johnny “Squirrel” (played by Sopranos alum Vincent Curatola), Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy), rob a card game patronized by the local mob.
So, to make a statement, local enforcer/hit man Dillon (Sam Shepard), sends in his best man, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), to handle the situation.
Jackie is so good at what he does that he has it down to a science and someone decided to craft a whole film around it. That someone is writer/director Andrew Dominik (based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins). He is trying to convey to his audience that the financial crisis of 2008, which was featured in that year’s heated presidential campaign, was so major, it affected the criminal world. How did it affect the criminal world? Hit men are forced to kill people for less money.
Not being familiar with the book, Dominik’s version of the story will have to be representative for this critique: Killing Them Softly lacks the gravitas it thinks it has to pull off such a statement.
The audience is supposed to think that the 2008 financial collapse in America caused organized crime to re-think its entire strategy, especially its approach to offing people for money. The audience also is supposed to care that these criminals have to resort to a kinder/gentler way of addressing people who wrong them.
And, the audience is supposed to feel bad that organized criminals and their enforcers will have to work with less money, even though many hard-working Americans genuinely felt the after-affects of the financial crisis.
Killing Them Softly is obviously a guy’s film. There’s so much brutal violence that one wonders about the dark thoughts that must be floating around Dominik’s head. How the violence fits the theme — that the bad economy affects criminals, too — is beyond me. It’s impossible to feel bad for a cold-blooded killer who’s making $5,000 less for killing people.
Despite it feeling like a slow death, there are three things that make Killing Them Softly tolerable.
Firstly, the crux of the film lies within the last sentences uttered by its perceived star. Pitt’s Jackie spouts political rhetoric about Thomas Jefferson coining the phrase, “all men are created equal,” while mating with one of his slaves and allowing his own children to be slaves. Jackie then accuses America of being one big place of business — every man has to fend for himself. While Jackie’s comments ring true, Dominik doesn’t convey his theme in an understandable way.
Pitt gives a stellar performance as Jackie, the smooth, yet friendly hit man. Jackie is the type who doesn’t like violence, but will help you finish a fight. Pitt is a fine actor and really puts his all in a role, with Killing Them Softly being no exception.
However, Killing does Pitt’s performance a disservice by being a violent mess of a film and not really making Jackie the star of the story. There wasn’t enough of Jackie’s perspective.
McNairy, who won the Hamptons International Film Festival “Breakthrough Performance” prize for Killing, is superb as Frankie. He has found common ground between shifty loser and brains of the operation.
While Killing is topical — given the threat of a financial cliff this year — it doesn’t inspire the right emotions. It’s hard to feel sorry for a murderer who wants more money or a murderer whose wife is leaving him and who drinks to numb the pain. A criminal doesn’t deserve special accommodation.
Meanwhile, Brad Pitt, a fine actor, deserves a better film to showcase his talent. Hopefully, his next film will make more sense.