The key to any great gangster flick is to let the audience in, a quality that The Godfather and Goodfellas both have in common. Those films gave us a cluster of criminals who, despite their efficiently vile methods on the job, were family men and women who were flawed but recognizably, endearingly human. We root against them and admire them at the same time, cringing at their gangland tactics but wanting them to get away with it because, after all, they’re kind of likable. Killing Them Softly keeps its audience on the outside looking in from start to finish, giving us no one to root for and resulting in a movie that is remarkably off putting, even for a crime film.
Brad Pitt plays Jackie, an “angel of death” sent to oversee a messy transaction between feuding mobsters, who have been at odds since one of their own (played by Ray Liotta) openly admitted to staging a robbery in his own establishment. The story gets more convoluted and bloodier once Jackie steps in and takes control of an increasingly incompetent bunch of trigger happy psychopaths.
This is Pitt’s second film with director Andrew Dominik; their first was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a challenging, long, character-driven western that is one of my favorite films of the past ten years. I had high hopes for their follow-up, as Jesse James has some of Pitt’s best work as an actor and showcased a filmmaker with brilliant instincts.
This is a director’s movie, for better or worse, as Dominik takes chances and makes choices that ensure this isn’t like any other gangster film we’ve seen. The characters and the world around them appear to be rotting away, as this nightmarish world of The American Dream gone bad portrays every structure as crumbling, every hair style too greasy, and likely every filmgoer wanting to shower as soon as it ends. From the start, you have criminals casually discussing rape, the prostitutes they hire and waxing poetic about their methods of murder (the film’s title comes from a clunky monologue).
All of these characters are repellent; imagine The Godfather if you hated the Corleones, Goodfellas without the sense of family or a Guy Ritchie crime film without the flash or engagingly warped crooks. I admired Dominick’s unusual approach but his movie is impossible to like.
Set during the McCain/Obama presidential race, there are sound bites of campaign speeches sprinkled throughout, some of which seem to thematically tie into the story. The oddly heavy handed political subtext adds very little and feels obtrusive.
There are great moments, like a couple of impressively held long camera shots, a car bombing gone bad, a sequence depicting the mindset of someone trying to hold a conversation while stoned and Pitt’s striking, Tarantino-esque closing monologue on Thomas Jefferson.
The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, particularly a boisterous James Gandolfini as a gone to seed crook, a charismatic Liotta and a commanding Pitt, whose look and demeanor suggest Mickey Rourke circa 1990.
This is the kind of bad movie only a great director could have made, as you see the potential of many moments pass by that fail to save the movie as a whole. It could divide audiences and develop a cult following, but even Drive, last year’s mob thriller that resulted in a vast love/hate audience reaction, had a cluster of characters you cared about. This film is hard to warm up to from the start, keeps the audience at arm’s length and, at a mere 97 minutes, leaves you with little when the lights go up.
Killing Them Softly
Rated R / 97 Min.