‘I’ ON CULTURE
The real problem with Killing Them Softly is that it tries to be too many things. TV ads portray it as a gangster film, but the gangsterism is not as important as the assorted messages director Andrew Dominik tries to get through. He tried to create people as interesting as those in Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction, but the dialogue is not nearly as funny or powerful as in those other pictures. Even more to the point: Much of the movie seems to be pushing hard on a message that the U.S. is soulless, and organized crime is just another part of American life. Messages like that work best when they are subtle. Dominik is anything but.
The basic story line of the movie is that two real grungy losers rob a mob-protected poker game. The two robbers, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) have been told by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), an old-timer with the gangs, that since the man in charge, Markie (Ray Liotta), once got away with robbing one of the games, they stood a chance that he would get the blame. They mess up the entire job, although they get away with a lot of money. The middle management of the mob, led by the always reliable actor Richard Jenkins (who does not even seem to have a name given) decide that the punks have to be punished and send two hit men to do the job to send a clear message to anybody else thinking about stepping over the line.
Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) and New York Mickey (James Gandolfini) are the killers, and they are the ones expected to carry the humor for the plot. Cogan actually states the film’s message: “America is not a country, it’s a business.” Combined with the choice of 2008 as its location in time (the book was actually written by George V. Higgins in 1974 as Cogan’s Trade) along with constant radio reminders of the recession that year with nasty comments about then-President George W. Bush and sort of hopeful ones about candidate Barack Obama, Dominik does not slip his message in quietly. The mob just runs a business, and killing people is nothing more than a minor cost — and America works the same way. He actually highlights it to an incredible degree, ruining any sense of fun. Instead of a stylish caper movie, we get a commentary on the country.
Ironically, Higgins’ writing was the inspiration for those earlier, more impressive films. His use of dialogue, the running by-play between the lowlifes, is very witty. Dominik uses that, but the story line is far too weak to really carry the picture.
As a result, it becomes more of a star vehicle for Pitt. He is, of course, one of our premier movie stars and an excellent actor. He uses his looks, his style, to convey the message that he is a craftsman, one who specializes in handling really difficult situations. He sparkles, which contrasts well with the rest of the cast, all of whom seem to be bumblers. Gandolfini plays Cogan’s long-ago mentor, a killer well over the hill. He enjoys the drinking and hanging out but is soul-dead. He lacks even the panache of his famous alter-ego, Tony Soprano. He has seen too much, done too much. Jenkins is a perfect middle manager; rules are rules and must be followed, even when dealing with life and death. Liotta, once thought of as a leading man, has become the almost perfect villain. He comes across as a stone-cold killer. McNairy is very good as the clumsy, not very bright leader of the pair of robbers.
There are many excellent scenes. Dominik actually uses a lot of the book’s dialogue. But the movie is more a progression of scenes than a fully told story. It feels like he set up a witty scene followed by some graphic violence followed by another witty scene and so forth. Pulp Fiction did the same thing but somehow managed to tie things together well. Even more to the point, there was a sort of nihilistic joy about that film. There is no joy in Killing. There are laughs; there is sparkling dialogue at times. But it was hard to care about any of the characters.
It is not a bad film at all. But for all that, it is a short one, only a bit over an hour and a half, although it felt longer. There is a lot to admire in the film; I wish I had really enjoyed it.