Movies like Killing Them Softly don’t come around often enough. And judging from the fact that it didn’t do too well at the box office, I’d say it’ll be a while before we see another this unique. Films like these aren’t often made in mainstream cinema, these films have dark, central characters who you either don’t root for or get killed. They are slow, sweary and extremely violent. At times Killing Them Softly reminded me of a cross between Pulp Fiction, any Martin Scorsese film like Goodfellas, Casino or Taxi Driver, and any number of ensemble crime films like Snatch or Lock. Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. From Pulp Fiction it had the long, seemingly ordinary conversation scenes mixed in with extreme violence, but not in a way where it felt it was trying to be Tarintino-esque. From Scorsese’s oeuvre it had the multiple characters, the great uses of music and one particular scene, which felt a lot like the execution of Tommy in Goodfellas. It had the black comedy of films like Snatch, but perhaps not to the same degree. Saying all of this though, the film never felt as if it were copying another film, and most of the time felt completely original, with the only downside being it’s extremely heavy-handed message. But more on that later.
The first thing that grabbed my attention about Killing Them Softly was its impressive cast. I was happy to see Brad Pitt back in a good role, the last film with Pitt in it that I enjoyed was Inglorious Basterds back in 2009. By this point in his career it’s a given that Pitt will deliver a great performance and he is as good as he’s ever been playing the character of Jackie, a hitman who is slightly squeamish when it comes to killing people. He hate’s them getting emotional, he prefers ‘killing them softly’. Other characters include the other main character, useless criminal Frankie played by Scoot McNairy who probably should get higher billing than he does. I’ve liked him since I saw him in the 2010 film Monsters, and this could be his best performance yet. Other actors include the always awesome Richard Jenkins as a middle man between Jackie and the bosses, the late James Gandolfini as a down on his luck, alcoholic, hitman friend of Jackie’s and the brilliant Ray Liotta as a really unlucky illegal card game organiser. It’s cool to see Ray Liotta back in the sort of film that made him big, and it’s also cool to see him not starring in a straight to DVD movie. The cast doesn’t have a single weak link throughout, although certain actors do feel underused. Sam Shepard pops up for what amounts to nothing more than a cameo as much talked about crime boss Dillon, and while Liotta is brilliant, he is also perhaps underused as the pathetic card game organiser.
The film isn’t perfect though, with its two main problems are both to do with the films message. Firstly, the message of the film is way too heavy-handed, with scenes in the movie too-often cutting to a TV screen showing footage from the 2008 Presidential race or the start of the economic recession. And that brings me on to the films second main problem, despite the message being heavy-handed, what exactly is the message? I took away that the characters are allegories for the economic downturn. For example, Dillon and Jackie are representing the two Presidents, with Dillon being Bush and Jackie Obama. When Dillon dies (not much of a spoiler, he’s hardly in it) Bush leaves, and Jackie/Obama takes over. So are the card game players representing the American public, who turn to Dillon and later Jackie to solve their problems? I dunno, it’s even more complicated from there on in and the message is too muddled to make sense out of. The only clear part is that director Andrew Dominik makes a clear parallel between crime and capitalism, but looking any further than that then the messages can be taken in a variety of contradicting ways.
Despite the criticisms, none of them bring the film down much at all. Killing Them Softly is still a brilliant film, with some awesome direction, brilliant pacing and the occasional hilarious joke. As well as this the actors put in some of their best performances of their careers, with special mention going to Liotta and McNairy. The film also has a cool sound track, with the song used to introduce Brad Pitt’s character being a particular highlight. I am very excited to see what director Andrew Dominik does next, and everybody should try to check out Killing them Softly.
The Bottom Line: Killing Them Softly is a unique crime film, the type of film that doesn’t get made often enough. The performances alone are worth watching the film for alone. Fan’s of the genre will get the most out of this though, especially if you’re into films by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarintino or Guy Richie. Killing Them Softly was a standout film of 2012 and one not to be missed.