‘Killing Me Softly’ Review
‘Killing Them Softly’ has a lot of characters but just one motivation: money. Everyone we see is after the almighty dollar. An low-level mobster hires two men to knock off an underground poker game; one of the thieves wants to use his cut to buy heroin he can sell for more cash. The mob wants the dough from the poker game back so they hire a hitman to find and kill the thieves. He’s after a payday, too -- and when he collects it, President Obama is on a television in the background, delivering his election night speech from 2008 when he proudly proclaimed that we are a nation of one people from a collection of United -- rather than red or blue -- States. The hitman, Jackie (Brad Pitt) isn’t buying it. “One people?” he scoffs. “A myth created by Thomas Jefferson,” who didn’t really believe all men were created equal; he was a slave owner who didn’t want to pay any more taxes to England. “America isn’t a country,” Jackie continues. “It’s a business.”
As you might begin to gather, the kills in this movie may be soft, but the themes are awfully loud. Writer/director Andrew Dominik has turned an old George V. Higgins crime novel into political allegory for the 2008 economic crisis. That inauguration speech isn’t President Obama’s first cameo in ‘Killing Me Softly,” and President Bush pops up a few times as well, delivering speeches about the precarious nature of our crumbling financial system from TVs and radios blaring in the backgrounds of a surprising number of scenes. When the two thieves stick up the card game, W. can be heard drawling about the risks of the American economy. That pretty much sums it up: the crisis was like a stick-up at a casino. some folks were betting, a few idiots stole their money, and now everyone is being held at gunpoint and nothing can get done. It’s a blunt but effective statement -- so blunt and so effective that Dominik definitely didn’t need the half-dozen other repetitions of the exact same trick. He drives his points home so loudly and so excessively I half expected Jackie to pull a dead horse out of the trunk of his car and start beating it for good measure. Let’s put it this way: as a metaphor, 'Killing Me Softly' makes a pretty good crime story.
Its dark and cynical portrait of America is very much of a thematic piece with Dominik’s last film, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,’ another gritty tale of greed and violence. Both movies star Pitt, but both relegate him to an odd place in the narrative; a central figure who’s left off-screen for long stretches of the runtime. ‘Killing Them Softly’’s perspective gets passed around so much -- to the robbers to Jackie back to the robbers and the man whose card game they rob (an unusually snively Ray Liotta) -- that it almost feels like an anthology film set in Boston’s criminal underworld.
Higgins also wrote the source material for the classic heist movie ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ and though it’s set in 2008 instead of the early 1970s, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is clearly set in the same world of dingy dive bars and grimy greasy spoons populated by a colorful cast of rats clawing desperately for a very small piece of cheese. There’s quite a few ‘Sopranos’ alumni involved, including Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, and James Gandolfini, who plays a particularly needy hitman; it's fun to see him back in this sort of role. Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy have an easy, sleazy rapport as the two vice-laden stick-up men, and Pitt uses his star power to good effect, making Jackie a handsome but imposing figure. He swaggers through the movie, smoking and stalking in slow motion, as confident and focused as a jungle cat on the hunt. In one small but telling moment, he parks his car and walks into a bar, and in the ten seconds it takes him to cross the street, a man down the block starts screaming and shooting a gun. Everyone else in the area runs for cover. Jackie never breaks his stride.
Dominik alternates between extremely spare dialogue scenes -- simple shot/counter-shot sequences with very little camera movement -- and dramatic visual flourishes, like an assassination in ultra slow-motion that is as vicious as it is gorgeous, with blood and glass kaleidoscoping through the air like moving abstract art. When the characters -- or assorted White House residents -- aren’t talking our ears off, the film is awfully stylish.
We don’t necessarily sympathize with any of these men -- they’re ruthless, selfish criminals, one and all -- but we do pity them a little, and perhaps recognize a bit of our own more mundane rat race in their bloody struggles. Maybe we are one people after all -- one nation under the god of greed. The song during the closing credits says it all: money, that’s what I want. It’s what we all want.
'Killing Them Softly' opens in theaters on November 30.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’