[Review] – Killing Them Softly

10 Dec

Killing Them Softly

Title: Killing Them Softly
Year: 2012
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by George V. Higgins
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard
MPAA Rating: R, violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use
Runtime: 97 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Metacritic: 64

In 2007 the world got to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the sophomore effort from New Zealander Andrew Dominik after Chopper from back in 2000. I have a huge amount of love for that 2007 film, a two-hours-and-forty-minutes Western that was just such a polished and confident piece of work, shot beautifully by the great Roger Deakins and performed perfectly by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, as Jesse James and Robert Ford respectively, the latter of which was nominated for an Oscar. I adore that movie because it’s just such a meditative and lyrical kind of epic, the kind of movie Criterion should look into adding to their lineup.

So of course I was looking forward to seeing Mr. Dominik and Mr. Pitt team up for a film once again, even if this film, much like their previous collaboration, has already disappointed at the box office (this one was actually stamped with an F CinemaScore grade). The film, which premiered at Cannes this year, is an adaptation of a 1974 crime novel called Cogan’s Trade, but Mr. Dominik while adapting it chose to change the setting to present day. He did it because he saw the themes about the economic crisis in there and about it happening because of a failure in regulation and thought he couldn’t just ignore how those facts resonated with our times.

Granted, those themes at large loom a bit too heavy-handedly over Killing Them Softly, the film acting as this cautionary tale of capitalism without really pretending otherwise, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that, once again, Mr. Dominik and Mr. Pitt have delivered a pretty great movie, even if it’s not as masterful as their previous team-up.

The story is basically this: you have your three typical dumb guys who think they’re smart enough to carry out a hit, and they’re dumber still to think that they can target an illegal poker game set up by a mobster played by Ray Liotta without having the mafia come after them. The job causes the criminal economy to collapse hard, so the mob hires an enforcer, Jackie Cogan, the role of Mr. Pitt, to help track those guys down and just restore the overall order. And it really is about that, about order, about what it means for money to keep rolling in, what happens when that stops and what people will do to get it back again.

I liked this one when it went for some dark comedic moments, I liked it when feeling dictated the thrilling scenes, and I liked it despite how obvious its flaws were. And that’s something that’s kind of important to me; it’s super hard for a film’s weaknesses to be so glaring and to still love it, that means the film’s doing something right. Sure, this is all structured like a typical tale of criminal justice and revenge in order to cram in a not-subtle-at-all political message, but the performances are just amazing and, sure, I think it wasn’t great of Mr. Dominik to not trust us enough to get what he was trying to say in a more dialed down way, but at least he let the characters be as colorful as he wanted them.

Now, to be fair I don’t think that “F” grade it was handed from those polled by CinemaScore was a consequence of it being such a thinly-veiled metaphor. What I think happened was that people saw the trailers or read the synopsis and saw mobsters and hitmen and Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini and were pretty quick to assume what type of movie this was, and it was probably anything but the movie they had in mind. This may read like typical crime caper (with an awesome cast) but no matter how much stylized bloodshed there is, it’s a far more arthouse watch. This does for mob films what The Assassination of Jesse James did for westerns.

This one shares a lot of the qualities that made Mr. Dominik’s previous films so great. Not only do they both at the core speak so darkly about American society and how greed and violence has replaced whatever good characteristics it once possessed, but they both feel patient and meditative, deliberately so, taking its time to deliver a tense experience that will find a way to burrow itself inside your brain and become a damn intense feeling even once you’re done with the film.

I don’t really want to waste time defending Mr. Dominik as far as how heavily he leaned on the symbolism, about how the 2008 Obama election is so present here, because I don’t really defend it. Sure, I loved the film a good deal, but if that had been done in a better way that at least allowed a bit more breathing room, I’m sure this would rank amongst my A+’s of the year. At the end of the movie Obama’s first acceptance speech is playing on TV and Cogan says that he feels no sense of loyalty to his nation or to anyone, he says that America’s not a country, that it’s a business, and he’s there to get paid. You can’t go in a more ham-fisted literal direction than that, can you?

Yet Greig Fraser delivers some stunning cinematography, the slow-mo bursts of violence are gorgeous and the performances are indelible. Those things make this movie more than worth your time, it’s a flawed movie but one that even with those flaws, perhaps even because of them, feels tremendously compelling and has some performances, especially the ones from Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins (and especially when Mr. Pitt shares screen time with them), that are just so, so good. Like I said, flaws and all, I loved Killing Them Softly, and I seriously can’t wait to see what Mr. Dominik decides to do next.

Grade: A-

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