Killing Them Softly * * * *

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Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Sam Shepard, Trevor Long, Max Casella, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Linara Washington.

Back in 2007, Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik collaborated, for the first time, on the ethereal western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford“. Five years later, they’re back together again and this time they attempt a crime movie. Now, this runs over an hour less than their previous effort but in some ways it feels just as drawn out. That’s not to say that’s it’s unsuccessful, though. It has received criticism from many corners but personally I think expectations and preconceived ideas have led to a misunderstanding with this one.

Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are a couple of smalltime crooks for hire. They get a job to hold up a high-stakes, mafia run, card game that’s overseen by middle-man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As Markie has openly admitted to holding up a game in the past, he becomes the obvious suspect but something doesn’t quite add up. To clear up the mess, outside enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in the get to the bottom of it.

Films that fall into the crime genre will always have a certain level of expectation about them. It must be difficult for a director to try and establish a new format when there is a demand that they follow a particular formula. This adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade” is exactly the type of film that has been criticised for it’s lack of urgency and has suffered in it’s comparison with previous genre classics. Personally, I admire Dominik’s attempt at crafting something different here, and despite a glacial pace, I still found it gripping. This is a film that focuses less on action and more on talking and it’s entirely understandable why some didn’t appreciate it, but for me, the talking was the action and that’s thanks to solid performances from everyone involved. Every actor is as good as the other and it’s through their strong, and lengthy, exchanges of dialogue that each of them are able to shine; McNairy and Mendelsohn carry the weight of the first part of the story with two very different but equally unlikable low-life’s; Liotta plays a perfect, desperate middle-man; Jenkins epitomises the business side of things and Gandolfini is a perfect display of regret and melancholia from a hit-man who’s lost his touch. Ultimately, though, it’s the reserved central performance from Pitt who commands. Arguably, he’s got less to work with but his subtlety is key in expressing the coldness and stark reality of the business that these people operate in.
Of course – as is now expected of Dominik – he doesn’t just deliver a formulaic gangster story. Instead, he infuses it with allegory and makes a social commentary on the financial state of America. Throughout the film there are, ironic, radio and television broadcasts of political speeches and discussions about the economy and reminders of how America is the land of opportunity. It’s a, less than subtle, device but one that worked quite well. On slightly closer inspection, the criminals that roam this underbelly of modern America are no less disingenuous or manipulative than the politicians in office. They just happen to be conducting their business on a lesser scale. At one point Pitt’s Jackie Cogan even describes his cohorts as “Corporate mentality gangsters“. That aside, this is still a crime film and as a result, it’s not adverse to rolling up it’s sleeves and getting it’s hands dirty. There may be only sporadic moments of action but when they do appear they are brutally delivered and some of the violence displayed on-screen is wince inducing.

Much like the aforementioned western collaboration between Dominik and Pitt this film dares to incorporate a sociopolitical commentary throughout it’s genre. It’s unconventional but very effective nonetheless and the last line of the film sums up it’s theme perfectly… “America is not a country, it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”

Mark Walker

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46 Responses to “Killing Them Softly * * * *”

  1. Pitt, Liotta & Gandolfini will still make me buy this. At least you are more positive than most reviews Ive seen, but as you say expectations were maybe too high from some camps.

    • As long as you expect it to take it’s time and are prepared for lengthy scenes of dialogue, then you get something from this. At only an hour and half it still seems long but that was the only drawback for me.

  2. Glad to read you really liked it, a lot of people didn’t and as you say that probably had to do with expectations. I liked it a lot and as you know it ended up in my 2012 top 10.

    • It was definitely different Nostra but I actually enjoyed it. I can completely understand why some wouldn’t take to this but it was a good change of direction for a crime film. Glad that it made your list as well.

  3. I ended up passing over this one. I know it seems to have brought out a lot of differing opinions. I’ve heard everything from its great and Brad Pitt is exceptional to its political message is too heavy-handed and the stylistic action shots are just too Hollywood. All that aside your review has intrigued me. I may have to give this one a shot. Thanks Mark.

    • It’s certainly not for everyone man and all of the complaints are true to an extent. It really comes down to the individual though, and what your expecting from it. If your expectations are lowered beforehand, then there’s a chance you’ll enjoy it. Expect dialogue, and plenty of it.

  4. I just had to go re-read my own review to remember this one. I just don’t see why so many people disliked this film. Especially the US critics. I, like you, thought it was a solid film and was in no way destined for a box office train wreck, which it seemingly was. Nice review though dude.

    • Thanks man. It’s good to hear from another fan. I can understand people’s negative thoughts on it but I took plenty from this and suspect it will be even better on another viewing.

  5. I haven;t seen this yet, but do you find, or do you think people in general automatically compare films like this to Tarantino? The old ‘What would Tarantino do’ mentality?

    • I think this and Seven Psychopaths suffered from these comparisons. As did Savages, but Savages was pretty poor to start with…

      • I’ve not seen Seven Psychopaths yet but I do fancy it and I started watching Savages but failed to make it to the end. It was slow and tedious as hell man.

    • That’s a good point man and I think there is something to that. Tarantino had (kind of) cornered the market with the crime movie. People do expect a certain standard but I liked this film because it dared to go against that grain. It was a bit slow but if you accept that from the offset, you can just get down to enjoying the excellent performances

  6. Um, sorry Mark but I have zero interest in seeing this. You gave a great argument why I should but I just can’t get past my aversion for Pitt, and the subject matter also doesn’t help.

    • I completely understand Ruth. Knowing a bit about your preferences and dislike for Pitt, I’d say you should just avoid this one. I really don’t think it would do much for you.

      • I knew you’d understand Mark :) I don’t mind checking out Pitt’s other films, I still have yet to see Benjamin Button, but that’s ’cause I love Blanchett. Btw, love your interview over at Nostra’s site :D

      • I’m a big fan of Blanchett as well but I wasn’t all that keen on Benjamin Button. I’m in the minority on that though.

        Yeah, I just realised about half an hour ago that that interview had been posted. It was really nice of Nostra to feature me. :-)

  7. You say this runs an hour shorter than “Jesse James”? So this is only six hours long??? ; )

  8. I’ll admit I had different expectations and preconceptions, but I dont think I misunderstood the film.

    I GOT his American financial crisis theme (How could you not, he practically beats you over the head with it?)… and I just didn’t care for it half as much as if he had left his cleverness at home and just made a mob movie. It’s just not half as deft as it would need to be, nor is it AS comparable, to be truthful… it’s kind of a sloppy metaphor, I think.

    Aside from that, all his slow mo and artistry really got in the way for me. It came across as poorly done. A detraction.

    In all honesty, I considered nominating him for my worst director category this year, he completely got in the way of his own film if you ask me.

    • Fair points here Fogs. The financial crisis deal was certainly hammered home and could have been toned down a bit and my use of the word “misunderstood”, in hindsight, is wrongly used. Not a lot was required to read into this, but that being said, I still took a lot from it. Where it’s strengths lay were in the cast and the interaction between them was superb. Top quality performances all round.
      I didn’t mind the slow-mo artistic flourishes too much. Granted, they weren’t really necessary but I don’t think they detracted too much. Worst director is a tad harsh methinks but this is definitely one if those films that entirely understandable when some just didn’t take to it. I was genuinely surprised that I liked it as much as I did.

      • In fairness to me, I did abandon my plans and did NOT include him in the Worst director field. LOL. Still. Considered him though! :D

      • LOL. Harsh thoughts Fogs. Harsh thoughts! Give it another chance. Personally, I think I might like this even more second time round. I considered giving it another 1/2 star but thought otherwise as the dust was still to settle.

  9. I missed this in its short run in theaters but I’m still interested in seeing it. Glad to hear you liked it. Nice review.

    • Thanks man. No doubt you’ll have heard a lot of negatives about it and you should keep that in mind before seeing it. It’s really one of those films where you just don’t know how you’ll feel until you’ve seen it. It’s an audience splitter.

  10. I like Pitt, but this just doesn’t seem to interest me haha. I will eventually get round to watching it.

    • I thought Pitt was great here but it isn’t a film that will appeal to everyone. It takes it’s time and even at a mere hour and a half running time, it does feel longer. Still, I enjoyed it a lot.

  11. sanclementejedi Says:

    Sadly my favorite thing about this film was Pitt’s hair and leather jacket. I think maybe my expectations were too high after loving their collaboration on Jesse James.

    • His hair and Jacket? No love for the goatee? ;-)

      It would seem that only a handful of people actually liked this man. I also enjoyed Jesse James but I found this to be just as impressive. My expectations were lowered somewhat after reading so many reviews that were less than positive but that probably worked in my favour.

      • sanclementejedi Says:

        well I think I may have him beat in the goatee dept :-) I did however love the cars in the film.

        Say have you ever seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle? It stars Robert Mitchum and is adapted from a novel by the same author of this film. It’s worth checking out if you have not seen it.

      • Haha! I sport a better goatee myself actually.

        I haven’t seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I’m aware of it but I didn’t know it was the same author. Nice one man. I’ll add that to my list. Cheers! :-)

  12. I’ve been reading mixed reviews of this movie, and I really appreciate your perspective. Your description of it as being partly allegorical is intriguing. I’m adding this to my list.

    • It does certainly drive home the message of a failing economy (and I mean REALLY drive home. You won’t be given a chance to miss it) but, yeah, I took the criminals conducting their business to be allegorical an the performances were a real highlight. Be prepared for a very slow pace though.

  13. ray brayne Says:

    Most underrated, over critiqued film of 2012. This an examination of real criminals and their mind-set. Their personalities and motivations, their very lives. The petty crooks up front did it for me. This is one of the closest portraits of real criminals, not Scorsese mobsters. Not Coppola mafioso. No, real down on their luck druggies and losers on the beat-down street.
    The devices used by the film maker, slo-mo bullets, glazed camera drug haze, only serve to illustrate the minds of the crooks. One spaced out beyond belief, the other super focused to the nth degree!
    The financial meltdown overtones were not over played. It was the mise-en-scene of the poverty and crime of our times. This film was so welcomed and different than the mere shot-out I expected. Very well done!

    • Yep, I’d agree with near enough everything you’ve said here Ray. It’s a great comment and I’m so glad to hear that there are more who really appreciated this one. It definitely comes from a more blue-collar angle and captures it brilliantly. I did think that the sociopolitical angle could have been toned down. I really liked the use of it but think it would have worked better with a little more subtlety. Other than that, though, this was one of 2012′s true highlights. Great film!

      • ray brayne Says:

        George Higgins wrote this and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. Terrific crime flik. Even though it’s 70′s era, it feels newer. Especially now that guns are in the headlines again. Worth a look see.

      • Yeah, Adam for threeguysonemovie just informed me the other day that they’re by the same author. I’m definitely gonna check that out. Cheers Ray! :-)

  14. Victor De Leon Says:

    Great Review Mark, I have this one lined up to watch. Despite what the negative reviews have said my reason for stalling on this one was that I just don’t dig Pitt like I used too. Thanks!

    • Thanks Vic. I don’t really have an aversion to Pitt. I actually quite like him and thought he was great in this film. Many didn’t like this but I loved it. Hope you feel the same man.

      • Victor De Leon Says:

        I will let you know, Mark! I do wish to watch “Moneyball” with Pitt soon. He looks amazing in that.

      • Yeah man! I really liked Moneyball as well and Pitt was great. But then I tend to think he delivers fine work regularly. I was very surprised at Moneyball though.

  15. Nice write up man, I missed this at the cinema but really wanted to see it. Definitely going to check it out at some point soon.

  16. I was bored and disappointed in this film. I found it and its sociopolitical preachiness to be effective in only turning me off from being interested even more. This should have been more but drifted back and forth between the type of movie it wanted to be. and Gandolfini gave his most impressive useless cameo to date.

    just my opinion. but I expected much more. your review had way more character than the subject of it IMO.

    • Haha! That’s quite a compliment when you say my review had more going for it that the film itself. Thanks man. I do take on people’s gripes about this one but as I was expecting to be disappointed, I was prepared and found myself pleasantly surprised with the results.

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