Let me start by saying that I absolutely love hard boiled gangster movies; Hollywood has produced far too few in the past decade. So with great anticipation I awaited the release of Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominik, the brilliant director behind the underrated The Assassination of Jesse James reteaming with Brad Pitt to film a violent gangster flick? And Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini are in the cast? What could go possibly go wrong? Well, the film can be a boring, plodding, goddamn mess for starters. Killing Them Softly is only 97 minutes long, but I feel like I just wasted four hours of my life at the cinema.
The movie centers on the fallout that occurs after two smalltime crooks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a card game manned by midlevel wiseguy named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The junkies think they can get away with it, because Markie robbed his own card game in the past and later bragged about it. If one of his games gets knocked off again, those wanting revenge are going to go after Markie. No intelligent person could possibly believe that Markie would sabotage his own game twice, but then the criminal class isn’t the smartest set. After the robbery, a faceless consortium of gangsters represented by a man simply known as Driver (Richard Jenkins) hires Jackie (Brad Pitt), a slimy hitman, to take out Markie and the robbers.
The first twenty minutes or so of Killing Them Softly is fantastic. The idiot robbers played by McNairy and Mendelsohn are colorful and sort of endearing. They’re completely ill-equipped to rip off big time mobsters, and plenty of comedy is mined from early sequences in which the two buffoons set up and execute their heist. Despite Andrew Dominik’s measured, deliberate pacing, these scenes contain an exciting, kinetic energy thanks in no small part to McNairy’s and Mendelsohn’s jittery performances. Then, in the aftermath of the heist, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini show up and the movie grinds to a halt.
It’s not that the actors themselves sabotage the movie in anyway. As Jackie, Brad Pitt arguably gives his best performance since 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James; it’s a low-key, cold performance that exhibits Pitt’s range as an actor. Likewise, Jenkins and Gandolfini add their always reliable talents to the proceedings. No, it’s the characters themselves that drag Killing Them Softly down.
After the movie’s big heist, Jackie shows up and talks with the mob representative about who he needs to kill. They haggle over whether Markie Trattman needs to be killed; then they argue about who likely ordered the job in the first place; then they haggle over price. Jackie says he needs to bring in another guy (Gandolfini), and Driver says he needs to get approval from the bosses. Jackie complains that it takes forever to do anything anymore. Then they haggle over price some more. Then Gandolfini’s hitman mopes around, complaining about his soon-to-be ex-wife and the fact that he’s not getting paid enough. The entire plot of Killing Them Softly would be a footnote in a Scorsese picture like Goodfellas, but it takes 97 tortuous minutes for the story to resolve here. I felt like I was watching the fucking House of Representatives argue over the debt ceiling instead of a gangster movie.
A constant stream of speeches from George W. Bush and Barrack Obama circa 2008 play over these negotiations. It’s a constant, grating reminder that the filmmakers are trying to torture some sort of analogy between the robbery of a mob card game and the fiscal crisis in 2008. Instead of helping the analogy, however, the constant sound bites only distract. Most street level criminals tend to know nothing about current events, and yet the guys in this movie listen to an endless stream of NPR and never turn the channel away from C-Span. The equivalent of Killing Them Softly would be a 1930’s Cagney/Bogart team-up where all of the gangsters do nothing but talk about FDR’s New Deal. It’s both unrealistic and boring as fuck.
I understand that we’re living in a cynical time. In the past decade Wall Street looted the country, stuck America’s dying middle class with the bill, and then went on its merry way. Given the financial screwing the average taxpayer received, I even understand the idea behind analogizing America’s financial sector to that ultimate free market—the criminal underworld. But, holy shit, does the film have to be so goddamn relentlessly dreary?
Analogizing investment bankers and corrupt politicians with reckless drug addicts and cutthroat hitmen can work. It just doesn’t work here. The film’s political message is both distracting and ham-fisted; the 1974 crime novel by George V. Higgins that serves as the basis for this movie is absolutely the wrong material for supporting an angry tirade against Wall Street. I appreciate that Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt were trying to elevate the genre here, but they should have dedicated more time to telling a good story and less time to proselytizing.