[This review was originally posted in October to coincide with the UK release of Killing Them Softly. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
Killing Them Softly currently holds a 95% 'Fresh' rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is odd considering how many of the reviews point out the movie's obvious flaws and spend relatively little time explaining its merits. I wonder if that's because they couldn't find any, but felt they probably should have been able to. After all, this is a movie by Andrew Dominik, director of the acclaimed The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and stars Brad Pitt, an actor whose A-list status disguises a willingness to take risks on interesting material.
The movie certainly has plenty to say, and its conceit of equating the circumstances leading up to the present financial crisis with the robbery of a mob card game is a clever parallel. Unfortunately, the theme which should be subtext is repeatedly slapped across the audience's face, and Dominik spends so much time reminding viewers how clever and stylish he's being that he barely remembers to tell a story.
Killing Them Softly
Before I begin, a few things need to be explained: first, I'm aware that one of the stylistic trademarks of George V. Higgins, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, Cogan's Trade, is the use of extensive conversations in lieu of action. This is to give the reader a sense of how people at various levels of the criminal hierarchy interact, allowing an insight into the workings of the system. That's fine for a novel, except on film, watching people chat for an hour an a half is less than stimulating, especially when every such conversation repeatedly attempt to hammer home the same theme. Even actors as skillful as Pitt and James Gandolfini, whose quasi-depressive assassin risks stealing the movie from under its star's nose, can't keep such overburdened, overwritten exchanges compelling for long.
I'm also aware the movie isn't trying to tell a story in the traditional sense. Its aims are made clear from the opening scene, which cuts between the titles, an industrial car park and a speech by President Obama. Dominik isn't really building a narrative so much as a metaphor. This isn't necessarily a problem, except the metaphor is made blatant from the first frame and developed so little over the subsequent ninety minutes that the movie says everything it needs to in the first couple of scenes, and everything after that just feels like time-wasting. The metaphor is prevented from developing because the 'story' revolves around Cogan (Pitt) tidying up the aftermath of the heist, a singular focus which bottlenecks the thematic work.
The movie's early scenes go for laughs and mostly get them, courtesy of a trio of bumbling would-be-thieves who put together what they believe is a foolproof plan, despite this being far from the case. Each of the three talks in a distinctive vernacular and have different outlooks on what they plan to do with the swag, making their interactions, and the clashes between their contrasting personalities, an early treat. A couple of decent sight gags don't hurt either, even if all of them were spoiled by the trailer.
Unfortunately, these characters go into hiding once Cogan arrives on the scene to become the centre of attention. His hangdog drawl and slightly precious attitude towards his job (the title is his term for killing people from a distance so he doesn't have to listen to them plead for their lives) puts a dark spin on the too-cool-for-school persona Pitt established in the Ocean's movies, but doesn't feel fresh or engage in the same way as listening to the increasingly ludicrous money-making schemes devised by a wastrel Australian. Cogan's trade throws him into contact with a number of people decrying the downfall of their criminal enterprise, be it due to committee-based conservatism at the top, the collapse of the local black market economy and its effect on hitman pay, the need to take action to improve public perception rather than effectively resolve the situation, or the disappearance of honour among thieves. There are interesting ideas in play, but since they all revolve around the same topic, it takes less than a minute to catch onto what the characters are really talking about, even though the conversations continue for what can feel like forever.
Unfortunately, the central metaphor the movie is so proud isn't expressed particularly clearly, and requires Pitt to deliver a speech at the end which verges on Ayn Rand levels of bluntness. The mob hierarchy is intended to parallel the different levels on which the financial sector poisoned the well for everyone operating in its shadow, although it's difficult to untangle which character is supposed to represent what aspect of the metaphor. The thieves who rob the card game, for example, are distinctly working class, suggesting Dominik considers the low-income people who bought into subprime mortgages were more responsible for the crisis than those who set up the irresponsible scheme in the first place, represented by Ray Liotta's Markie. Markie's fate similarly implies that bankers don't deserve the treatment they have received, or at the very least that it was ineffective. There's nothing wrong with taking an opposing viewpoint to the average opinion - in fact, controversial perspectives are a valuable part of the debate - except it's contradicted by Cogan's climactic speech, suggesting the real problem is people like Markie acting for selfish personal gain.
Between its lengthy deliberations, Cogan commits a number of assassinations which Dominik portrays in flashy slow motion. Despite the rest of the movie encouraging viewers to seek out its barely concealed subtext, these sequences lack any justification for their stylistic excesses, feeling like they exist more to service the deceptive trailer rather than express a point within the narrative. The soundtrack is self-consciously ironic, and there's little pleasure in watching a burst of CGI blood bursting through the bullet hole in a man's cheek when it comes across as nothing more than directorial showboating in a movie otherwise all about meaning. Despite the outstanding cast, with the star names playing tragic or devious variations on their most famous roles, Killing Me Softly has much to say, but is too pleased with itself to realise what a mess it makes of potentially fascinating ideas.