I had very high expectations for director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s new film “Killing Them Softly” (based on the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins). Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins are but some of the few stars that shot my hopes for the picture to a skyscraping level. But in spite of Dominik’s résumé (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), “Killing Them Softly” merely managed to let me down during its most vital sequences. The opening credits are but one of many fatal flaws that make the audience cringe with its abrupt cuts and high-pitched white nose frequencies, clearly utilized as an attention-grabbing tactic. Dominik may be experimenting, but these distractions are unnecessary.
Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a pair of drug addicts, are presented as the protagonists of the film during the first minutes. Mendelsohn exaggerates his role as the idiotic crime puppet, while McNairy plays it cool and earns the respect of his viewers. Frankie is initially loveable even though he is obviously a gangster wannabe sitting on the edge of poor decisions. He is first seen conversing with a mid-level boss, named Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), who delves into an intricate, compelling story about gangster man Markie Trattman (Liotta), who runs illegal card games even after he decided to rob his own business. Needless to say, you should never double-cross your business partners.
Trattman’s story spawns the brilliant decision of sticking up the same card game in a foreseeable scapegoat formula. Frankie and Russell are thrown into the comical scenario of holding up the game with bright yellow rubber gloves and a much-too-sawed-off shotgun. What ensued was reminiscent of a well-executed “Sopranos” episode with a suspenseful situation that could have taken any turn. The robbery results in Frankie and Russell becoming successful in their endeavor…until the higher-ups receive word.
The blunt and organized Jackie (Brad Pitt) becomes the main source of information on the recent burglary. Richard Jenkins plays Driver, a timid but stern man who allows himself to be pushed about. Jackie is a contracted hitman and Driver is the liaison in what appears to be a CEO-Mob relationship. There is extremely brutal violence ahead. Jackie knows how to play the game, but his associate Mickey (Gandolfini) is not so professional; he is a vulgar, alcoholic sex-crazed spectacle who takes nothing from nobody. Jackie is not a fan, which is why the audience only gets a couple of extended scenes with Gandolfini, who owns the entirety of the role.
Dominik’s labors with this would-be masterpiece are present within the soundtrack and commentary. The scene where Brad Pitt enters the picture in his muscle car, leather jacket and orange-tinted sunglasses is probably one of the better moments, accompanied by beautiful, poetic music. The cinematography, however, enjoys stylistic pitfalls, and one murder scene can only be described as overdone. The usage of slow motion, fish-eyed perspective and constant fade in/fade outs are only expedient in emphasizing Russell and Frankie’s lucid drug experiences.
As the movie progresses into a climactic battlefield, one becomes satisfied with the creative and surprising murder sequences. The only issue I took with Brad Pitt’s character was the ceaseless political references, delivered even in the midst of a beat down, that served as massive nudges toward feelings of disgust at the state of the nation. There were no subtle opinions, only in-your-face political rants.
“Killing Them Softly” showed so much promise, and could have been as momentous as the badass “Drive,” but Dominik leads his movie astray and cannot seem to organize his thoughts into a comprehensive statement about New Orleans and the financially unstable economy in relation to violence. The movie could have been worse, and it certainly was a seat shaker, but it lacked depth even in Brad Pitt’s spellbinding performance.
Rating: 2.5 stars