The holiday season is defined by joy and cheer. Many films around this time tell stories of happiness and hope, such as the christmas tale “Rise of the Guardians,” the whimsical “Wreck it Ralph” or the grand visual tale in “Life of Pi.” Unfortunately there is little of that in the dismal subject matter of Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly.” Though the film has a solid production and distinguished cast performances, its subject and themes hold too dark a tone to entertain fully.
“Killing Them Softly” begins with slum boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) persuading Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a card game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). They succeed and get away initially, but only because Trattman is accused by the criminal underworld of robbing his own card game. Professional criminal Jackie (Brad Pitt) is hired to find those responsible and kill them in the most efficient way possible.
Despite the film’s setting in a run-down, dilapidated criminal city, there is very little action. It’s exclusively the job of the actors to sell this film with their characters, who are trying to survive in a dismal place. They succeed in this regard but perhaps too well for the film. The sleazy, backstabbing cast fits so well into its setting, with its bare one-story houses and dirty, rain-soaked streets, that it plunges the film into a deep miasma of despair.
Pitt holds the most screen time as Jackie. He parcels out cold and calculated lines with a cynical stare, and his angular face and slicked-back hair maintain an impression of an alpha dog in a sad jungle. Liotta also fits well into the cast, and his large eyes help portray the sad and tired Trattman. Even James Gandolfini from “The Sopranos” makes an appearance as a hit man undergoing an alcohol and sex-fueled midlife crisis. The most notable performance comes from Mendelsohn. Russell’s lines and attitude, alongside his costume and makeup, create one of the most sleazy, scum encrusted, shameless bottom-feeders to ever appear in cinema.
“Killing Them Softly” adopts an exceptionally dark tone. The film is full of gangsters, thugs and prostitutes all trying to make a living through whatever ill-gotten measures they can. The violence and material is not stylized and hyperactive like what could be expected in a “Crank” film, though there is plenty of gore to go around.
This film is not a straight shoot-em-up between robbers, and the police only show up to arrest one character. There are scenes involving some gunfire, and some especially tense scenes threaten violence. The violence is very blunt in its gore. The film has one of the most brutal and gut-wrenching beatings in cinema, involving heavy amounts of blood and vomit. Frankie and Russell’s robbery is one such instance, when the two masked amateurs attempt to rob a room full of dozens of silent, hardened criminals staring coldly back at them. But the tempo of this movie is slow, focusing more on character interactions and long shots absorbing the poor, desperate surroundings.
“Killing them Softly” is not soft at all about hammering its message into its audience. The film takes place during the 2008 presidential election and economic crisis, so clips of speeches from former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama play as the film progresses. In addition, the film ends very suddenly with Jackie’s speech about the truth regarding the American Way. This punctual ending on a blatant speech about the movie’s moral is obvious and disappointing.
The dedicated performances, merciless writing and powerfully unnerving sets can make “Killing Them Softly” enjoyable as a potential study in craft. The film may not be enjoyable as a piece of entertainment, though, simply because it embraces its dark and despairing subject matter with such totality.
Overall rating: 2 stars
Though “Killing Them Softly” has a solid production and distinguished cast performances, its subject and themes hold too dark a tone to entertain fully.