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Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Directed by: Andrew Dominik

Premise: After a pair of young thugs holds up a backroom gambling operation, a mob enforcer (Brad Pitt) tracks them down in order to restore order in the criminal community. 

What Works: Killing Them Softly was directed by Andrew Dominik, who had previously directed the underrated and under seen 2007 feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Domink is a director who is clearly influenced by filmmakers like Robert Altman and Terrence Malick; his movies are light on plot and reject or subvert the conventions of narrative Hollywood moviemaking. Instead the emphasis is on the characters and the relationships between them. Killing Them Softly is like an ensemble piece in that it does not have a discernible lead character. Instead it alternates between the various characters and the film has some impressive performances. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play the thugs who get in over their heads and Mendelsohn is especially good; his character isn’t very smart but Mendelsohn gives the character moments of clarity that make him more than a caricature of a dumb criminal. The most impressive performance is provided by James Gandolfini as an alcoholic hit man. Gandolfini’s character is violent and tragic and the actor conveys both while barely being required to do anything on screen. Killing Them Softly is shot very well by cinematographer Greig Fraser. The film is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and the imagery often picks up the grit and filth while framing the action against a collapsed urban landscape. Both the geographical and the temporal settings of Killing Them Softly are important to this film, as it is set in the fall of 2008 amid the presidential campaign and the concurrent economic collapse. The filmmakers smartly tie the collapse and bailout of Wall Street with the events in the film, setting up the movie as a commentary on economics.

What Doesn’t: When The Assassination of Jesse James was released, the film was criticized as unfocused and lethargic. While those criticisms may not have been true of that film, they do apply to Killing Them Softly. Whatever the problems with The Assassination of Jesse James, the filmmakers dealt with heavy themes like obsession, media, and the cult of personality, and they did so intelligently in ways that arose organically out of the story. In Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik address the ways individuals are crushed by economic systems and the lengths those in charge of those systems will go to protect their interests. That is a potentially compelling topic but the filmmakers are only able to deal with it in broad strokes. There just isn’t much to the body of the film. This may be intentional, as the filmmakers subvert the hope symbolized by Barack Obama’s election with the gritty realities of organized crime. The final, nihilistic statement of the movie may be earnest and even correct but it is also superficial and there isn’t anything here about capitalism or greed that hasn’t been done before and done better in other crime dramas. Killing Them Softly is also a movie that struggles with pacing. The rhythm of this movie is off and it frequently stops dead to allow the actors an opportunity to chew scenery. This is especially true of the scenes showcasing James Gandolfini. The actor is great in the role but his scenes go on and on and in the scheme of the movie they do not contribute much to the story or to its themes. Overall Killing Them Softly lacks a coherent focus. The filmmakers gather a lot of smart images and compelling scenarios but they aren’t assembled in a way that makes them meaningful. 

Bottom Line: Killing Them Softly is an interesting film but not a very good one. It won’t appeal to viewers who enjoy mindless shoot-‘em-up movies but even intellectually oriented audiences are likely to find it wanting.

Episode: #418 (December 9, 2012)