Release: Friday, November 30, 2012
Brad Pitt does not smile once in this movie.
And for that matter, the sun does not come out to shine in Killing Them Softly, either. Bring it on — the rain, the darkness, the bloodsplattering, and the poetic justice behind it all. Some won’t be as willing as I am to stand behind this film and support the violence that it portrays, and while that is understandable, it is sort of a problem for this film because there is a steady breeze of genius that drifts in and out of every major scene. The moments where there’s action, though, are likely to turn people’s stomachs if they’re not prepared.
It was mostly a success, but there have been more than a fair share of the criminal-as-protagonist type storylines where we really don’t have any fresh air from other points of view, i.e. the “innocent person’s” perspective. Instead we have the viewpoint of thug going after other equally unlikeable guys. Martin Scorsese has done a few like that (great ones); Tarantino is known for them (he’s especially associated since all the blood and gore that go into his films seem to be done with a labor of love), and a host of other films across multiple directors share at least a few elements in common. They’re tough. They’re gritty. Mean-spirited. Difficult to justify at times. And those are but a few of the main trademarks of the criminal/gangster plot synopsis.
If we’re talking Softly, there’s not a whole lot of laughter — the pure and healthy-happy sort — in the realm of a bankrupted criminal world, during a time when the nation as a whole was in financial straits. Set in 2008 right before the economic collapse and during a fierce presidential race, the story is not a happy one. The script is very vulgar and at times pretty disturbing and disgusting; at least, when put into context with who’s saying what.
Two greedy thieves — Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) — are set up by a mobster fronting as a laundromat manager (Vincent Curatola) to rob a mob-protected card game. The game is being hosted by Markie Trattman (another stalwart performance by Ray Liotta), a kind-faced slouch who’s already let a robbery happen at one of his games before. When Russell and Frankie somehow pull the stunt off successfully, Trattman finds himself in hot water with the rest of his “friends,” who at the same time have been bankrupted.
Cue Brad Pitt’s murdering hit man, Jackie Cogan. Jackie is called in to set things straight within the local organization, and time and again reiterates that it’s not what he really likes doing — killing people — but if it’s gotta be done, he’ll do it from a distance. Softly, and with an automatic shotgun. Hired out by an inconspicuous agent played by Richard Jenkins, Cogan’s mission is to track down the money and the low-level thieves responsible. Yes, make no mistake. People do pay dearly for their actions.
The beating scene and when Trattman finally is tracked down and killed in a slow-motion drive-by, are some of the most brutal and difficult to watch scenes I’ve come across since sitting through American History X. Indeed, I was not quite convinced all those times Jackie lamented the whole “having to kill people” part of his job, saying that that aspect is a result of push coming to shove. He doesn’t like getting all touchy-feely. But then when it came to doing it, there was relentless passion in the act. It was as though Tarantino had stolen the director’s chair. The cutting room floor would be a mess, in no time, I’m sure.
Bloody as they are, the scenes don’t reach the point of being gratuitously violent. Restraining much of the activities and unpleasantries that are part of the fabric of criminal life but for a few moments meant the plot would need to rely on substantial dialogue and other audio, such as the political commentary. That’s impressive. And must have been difficult to do.
Unfortunately, Dominik ended up delivering the political feed a bit too heavy handed, since there were more than a few moments when all other dialogue and audio had dropped out, leaving an isolated soundtrack of Obama or then-President Bush dangling in space. Statements on the health of the national economy penetrated like stray bullets when no one was talking in a scene. And the movie began on one as well; a message from Barack.
At times the political overtones became so loud and drove more of the issues down our throat that it seemed the entire criminal storyline had taken a backseat. When there was no one talking in a given scene, the speeches and campaigning between Obama and McCain, of Bush on the health of the national economy, became the pathos of the film. This is while Jackie Cogan just sat around looking pissed about what he gets paid.
There’s no doubt, though, that Pitt ensures the attention is never taken off him when he’s on screen. Jackie Cogan is both enigmatic and terrifying. The acting in general is very, very solid and combines to form a dark, strangely funny and colorful conversation. We may not enjoy listening to everything these lowlives have to say, but we get a very good portrait of that lifestyle. And we want to stay well clear of that neighborhood, too.
Recommendation: If you’ve seen Dominik’s last release, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, you’ll be well-acclimated to the melodrama and violent undercurrents. I wasn’t, so I was taken by surprise. A thoroughly enjoyable film for 50 minutes or so, then turns into a lecture.
Running Time: 97 mins.
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