‘Killing Them Softly’ is not a killer

By on December 4, 2012

The latest from Brad Pitt is one of those passion projects you hear about, where the actor is in things for the opportunity to, you know, act – but not so much for the money. Therefore, the actor takes a huge pay cut, working with the lowly indie filmmaker for a penance, – for the chance to play a real character.

Pitt stars in Andrew Dominik's new film "Killing Them Softly." MCT Campus

Pitt got together with previous collaborator and friend Andrew Dominik, with whom he did the laboriously-titled “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” back in 2007, and the two came up with “Killing Me Softly,” an adaption of the novel by George V. Higgins. The film, made for under twenty-million- low budget by Hollywood standards, in other words- is the definition of a labor of love.

It’s also a nice gesture on Pitt’s behalf, as the director hadn’t made a film since their last film together, nearly five years ago. This is the sort of film a big star’s very presence is noteworthy – you don’t really do it for the cash – hence the low budget. Especially in these tough economic times, you know?

“Softly” takes place in pre-Obama, Bush-era times, as the economy was crashing down and our real troubles were beginning. Not that they are much better now, but I’d say we’ve made a little bit of progress since then, to say the least. Anyway, the film is basically about how tough times even affect those living a life of crime- like the mob, for instance. Can you say cutbacks?

In one wryly amusing scene, Richard Jenkins, playing a staid businessman that serves as a go-between for the mob, and Pitt, playing a hit man hired to take care of some business, argue about how much Pitt is getting paid for his actions. Whacking people doesn’t pay like it used to – what are you gonna do? Times are tight. Pitt can only grumble about the slight- it is what it is.

Meanwhile, an associate of Pitt tries to palm the tip Pitt leaves at a restaurant before he admonishes him to leave it where it is. Fellow hit man James Gandolfini gets onto a hooker about leaving a tip in another scene, moaning to Pitt about how hookers used to be fun back in the day- now look at them: all business.

It’s all about the money, honey.

It’s a weird tact for a mob movie to take, a set-up that sadly lends itself to sucking most of the joy out of the genre along with it. Not that mob movies should be fun, exactly, but you know what I mean. There’s a reason people love “Scarface” and “New Jack City” and the like, it’s about being the most powerful guy in the room- all bluster and bravado. They get the money, the power, and then they get the women…you know the drill. Meanwhile, Scorsese shows the good and the bad, the upside and the downside of being made by the mob brilliantly in films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

“Softly” seems to be gunning for part-character study, part Tarantino-esque gab fest. All talk, no action for the most part, in other words. Oddly, though, Dominik tends to favor the slow-motion, “bullet-time” approach of the “Matrix” films- making the bursts of violence that do happen here and there unaffecting for the most part. It’s sort of the “CSI” whooshing through the crime scene-cam, as if you were watching re-creations of the act instead of the act itself.

Myself, I think violence works best in films like this when it happens suddenly, abruptly- catching the viewer unaware, just like the characters in the film itself. In other words, more of the Scorsese & Tarantino approach. Here, you see everything coming, and it’s in super slo-mo! Kind of cool- the one that ends in the car crash was cleverly done- but it doesn’t really register to the viewer. It’s kind of like watching an indie videogame during those scenes, and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.

In a weird way, some of the film’s stars work against it, too. Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) and Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”) could do this sort of thing in their sleep, and, at times, it seems as if they are. Their performances are good, but they both seem tired- as if to say, this again? Again with the mob thing? Ugh!

Pitt is great, though- his character is compelling, easily the best thing in the film. He’d better be, he’s the star and producer, after all. His hit man’s disdain for the way the world works now is clearly evident and the way he expresses it is entertaining- it almost makes the film worth seeing on its own. But the film itself is so joyless, it leaves the viewer feeling the same way in the end. If you’re still struggling with the economy yourself- aren’t we all? – you might want to skip this one for that reason alone.

Andrew Dominik, driector of 'The Assassination of Jessee James by the Coward Robert Ford,' and Brad Pitt collaborate once more on 'Killing Them Softly.'

The film, to be fair, does take some stabs at humor here and there, especially in the scenes with the film’s initial leads, played by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy (whose name is funnier than anything in the movie- and check out his imdb trivia for even more laughs). There’s a cute scene with some dogs stuck in a car for some long-distance driving and what goes down when that happens, and another where a guy makes an ill-advised decision in regards to how he blows up a car, but they happen so randomly and quickly, they only register as a blip on the radar. The attempts at trash-talking Tarantino-style mostly fall flat as well- it’s not funny, it’s just talking loud and saying nothing BS, crudity for its own sake.

The film is definitely best when hit men Pitt and Gandolfini are in it, even though the latter’s character is so checked out and drunk, he doesn’t even end up killing anyone! Gandolfini’s character is just in it for the hookers and booze at this point. Pitt has to do all the dirty work himself, and every step of the way, there’s resistance from the higher-ups and negotiation, with everything done by committee. As he says, “America is not a country; it’s a business.” So is the mob these days.

Pitt has an amusing bit where he points out that one character is clearly going to end up dead, so why beat him up when you’re just going to kill him anyway? Just cut to the chase, you know? I’m with Pitt. Too bad the movie isn’t. Everything is stretched-out for no reason, becoming monotonous. On the plus side, though, at least it’s short: an hour-and-a-half and some change- pretty good compared to the director’s last flick, which clocked in at nearly three hours!

That said, the acting is fantastic- of course- and the bits about the economy that crept into scenes like the aforementioned ones were well done and amusing. That aspect of the film is very intriguing, and easily the best thing about the film. The film has nothing if not a unique take on a time-worn genre.

However, the film itself as a whole is strangely inert- like the special effects, it seems to be in slow motion. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll want to at least rent it, but sadly, it doesn’t quite qualify for classic mob movie status. Few do. The approach does makes it worth seeing, but not enough for a visit to the theater, I’m afraid.

Rating: C+

Mark Trammell
Staff Writer

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
  • Tres

    I loved this movie. I walked out of the theater feeling great. It’s at least a B … for treating the genre a bit differently, because of the slow mo shoot-outs, fantastic dialog, music is spot-on, and for Pitt’s performance. And, how great was Scoot McNairy?! Really, a C+ doesn’t do it justice at all. Go see it people!

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