Brad Pitt plays a cold-hearted hit man called in to clean up after a mob poker game, run by Ray Liotta, is robbed. To do so, he’ll need the help of another trigger man, played by James Gandolfini.
As highly enjoyable as such a recipe sounds, it didn’t manage to come together for me onscreen as well as I’d hoped. As sad as I am to say it, “Killing Them Softly” is more like “Killing Them Slowly”, with other notable flaws mixed in along the way.
A small time connected guy (Vincent Curatola) gets wind of the story that years ago a local mobster, Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta), hired a couple of guys to rob his own poker game. Now he figures that if Trattman’s game were robbed again, the powers that be would assume that Trattman was pulling the stunt a second time, and never actually find who’s really to blame. So he hires a couple of very small timers (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to knock over the game.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, those in charge (represented by Richard Jenkins) call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to resolve the issue. Cogan rapidly analyzes the situation and forms a plan to dispense justice. To do so, he’ll need another guy on the job, Mickey Finn (James Gandolfini). Once Finn arrives, however, Cogan realizes he… isn’t what he used to be. So plans have to evolve, but there’s still only one outcome for those that crossed the line.
Things move slowly in “Killing Them Softly”. Very slowly. After the initial robbery of the poker game, the film really puts the brakes on. And while I can appreciate a good “slow burn” movie as well as the next person, there’s a few things along the way here that were real impediments to my enjoyment of the film.
The first is that director Andrew Dominik (who also worked with Pitt on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) really gets in his own way. He interjects multiple “style” sequences, and I’m hard pressed to think of one of them that I didn’t want to end long before it actually did. Whether it was the gauzy out of focus sequence that signified the junkie thieves getting high on heroin, the interminable slow motion shattering glass of a bullet passing through a car window, or the triple vision entrance of Gandolfini’s character, Dominik insists on demonstrating visual techniques and frankly I don’t feel a single one of them added to my enjoyment of the film.
The second, which I would also have to put on Dominik as writer/director, is that the movie hammers home its parallels to the recent near-collapse of the banking system and its themes of American self-interest. Throughout the movie, audio of news conferences revolving around the financial crisis and Presidential election of 2008 plays – not in the background – but loudly overlaid like a soundtrack song might be. It’s put forward for you in a way that’s impossible not to miss, which… isn’t exactly how one would like their “themes” delivered. Whatever merit the metaphor may have had initially is grossly undercut by the fact that it’s essentially shoved down the audience’s throat.
Of course, there are still elements in play which make the film enjoyable in the balance. Brad Pitt plays a clever, cold-blooded killer. I think everyone can enjoy watching that. His scenes discussing various courses of action with Richard Jenkins were easily the highlight of the film for me. It’s also great watching James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Vincent Curatola play mobsters again. That should be a steady gig for all of them, I honestly don’t understand why it isn’t. There were also a handful of tense scenes and moments along the way, notably the poker game robbery scene and the scene where Pitt eventually confronts Scoot McNairy.
Unfortunately, between the slowness of the film, the fact that director Andrew Dominik insists on showboating, and the “Enough, enough! I get it already!” presentation of its themes, I have to admit to being very disappointed, and can’t recommend the film very enthusiastically.