Killing them Softly (2012)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot Mc Nairy, Ray Liotta Directed by Andrew Dominick Written by Andrew Dominick and George V. Higgins
Directed by Andrew Dominick (whose previous works include Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Killing them Softly is another film, like Only God Forgives, that divided critics and audiences alike. Set in 2008 at the time of the presidential election that saw Barack Obama take power, Killing them Softly is both a neo-noir thriller and an allegorical look at the state of the U.S. economy.
The weighty cast alone gives you an idea of the tone of the film- Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy– this is gangster territory. In an un-named, bleak, middle-American town filled with empty houses and abandoned shops (filmed in New Orleans for tax purposes), the story centres around Frankie (McNairy) and dog-napping heroin addict Russell (Ben Mendehlson, who I remember from his days in Neighbours) robbing a local criminals’ card game, an act organised by Squirrel (another Sopranos alumnus, Vincent Curatola). The gang think they can get away with pinning the robbery on Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta) as he had previously admitted robbing his own card game, but had somehow been let off the hook by the local underworld. Squirrel’s thinking is that a second robbery would also be put down to Trattman and the threesome could get away with no-one looking in their direction. However, the robbery means that the local criminal economy grinds to a halt, and so a mysterious man, “Driver” (Richard Jenkins) hires hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) to straighten out the mess and get the money moving again. It emerges that Jackie knows Squirrel, and isn’t willing to kill him personally, so brings in fellow hitman Mickey (Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini in one of his last film roles). Mickey proves to be far from the top of his game, and so plans begin to go awry.
The slow-burning, dramatic black comedy is broken up with real-life TV and radio news footage from 2008, positioning the desperate financial straits of the characters within a wider social context, while also drawing comparisons between the gangsters and those in charge of the US economy. This is ultimately what puts the film in a different league to most gangster/revenge movies, in that it has something to say beyond showing off set-pieces of audacious violence, even if the message is delivered in a distinctly heavy-handed fashion.
That being said that are some spectacularly violent scenes, including Ray Liotta being beaten until he vomits and a slow motion drive by shooting soundtracked by “Love letters straight from your heart”. The soundtrack provides much of the comic relief in the film, with some very deliberately chosen tracks acting as a very obvious spotlight to guide the audience’s way through the story (eg the use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man comes around” upon the arrival of Brad Pitt).
Those expecting fast-paced, glossy action will be disappointed, with a lot of the drama (and comedy) focusing on some very “talky” key scenes. One of the most powerful of the film features the only female character (a prostitute, just to keep with the seedy tone) in a hotel room with Pitt and Gandolfini, with Pitt playing the psychiatrist’s role to Gandolfini’s dark confessions.
It was somewhat timely that I watched this so close to Only God Forgives as, for my money, Killing Them Softly often succeeds where Winding Refn’s film fails, although Dominick’s film is far from perfect. The subject matter is similarly nasty, but whereas Only God Forgives offers a purely philosophical look at greed and retribution, Killing them Softly offers a harder political explanation. All the characters are similarly monstrous- greedy, violent and misogynistic. However, the social context of Killing them Softly offers an explanation for their actions- desperation. These characters are not naturally amoral, they have been forced into being that way. Indeed the title of the film comes from Jackie’s misguided notion of mercy towards the targets of his hits, that he “kills them softly” from a distance so they won’t know what is about to happen.
The film as a whole is patchy in tone and pacing, and is sometimes a little too impressed by it’s own intelligence, but is certainly a cut above many run-of-the –mill gangster films.
3 1/2 out of 5