Film review: Killing Them Softly

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Brad Pitt plots a stealthy revenge in Killing Them Softly, his second collaboration with director Andrew Dominik. Image: The Weinstein Company Brad Pitt plots a stealthy revenge in Killing Them Softly, his second collaboration with director Andrew Dominik. Image: The Weinstein Company

Gangster wrapKilling Them Softly is a game of violent payback

Director Andrew Dominik returns with Brad Pitt in tow after the debacle of their leaden-paced, underwritten, overproduced, and preposterously long The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. How many death scenes are silly enough that Yogi Bear sends them up?

With Killing Them Softly, Dominik is on firmer and familiar ground: The contemporary crime/criminal story. This movie has more in common with his first feature, Chopper (which stars a then-unknown Eric Bana as a famous Australian criminal, Mark “Chopper” Read), and is short, brutal, and to the point.

Killing Them Softly treads, in tone, somewhere between Chopper and Jesse. Based on a George V. Higgins novel (his most famous is probably The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and updated from the 1970s to 2008, Killing Them Softly is dark, gritty, and heavy on talk with sudden bursts of violence that are so visceral they’re shocking. It’s effective, nasty stuff.

At the beginning, we learn Markie (Ray Liotta) runs a high-stakes, high-money poker game that got knocked over years before. Much later, he admits to friends that he robbed the game himself, and as criminals have loose lips (or at least they do in every movie ever), word gets out that it would be easy to knock over Markie’s game now, blame it on him, and watch him take the fall.

So that’s what Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) does, hiring Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, playing a junkie with gleeful abandon) to commit the robbery. As he’s handing over the money, Markie says, “You know they’re going to kill you.”

And maybe Markie knows he’s done, too. After all, everyone knows he knocked over the game once. Why wouldn’t he do it again?

Enter Jackie (Brad Pitt), a bad guy with great aim and a hairdo that resembles Pitt’s pompadour in Johnny Suede. His job is to kill everyone responsible for the robbery without fuss—to “kill them softly,” as he puts it, because he doesn’t like pleading or torture. His main contact is the great and finally-everywhere Richard Jenkins as a go-between for Jackie and the mob’s upper echelon, guys who maybe have a public life in addition to their criminal ties.

Pitt is excellent in the part, playing Jackie as a sort of Darwinian enforcer. He makes no threats but makes clear he is the top of the pyramid. He’s the fittest, and he’s not just surviving, but drawing up the plans.

Where the movie falters is Dominik’s choice to show T.V. screens featuring then-President Bush, and then-President-elect Obama, talking about the financial crisis and American dreams. We get it: Legal crooks (bankers) get away with it and regular thugs (everyone else) don’t. Jackie even gives an astute takedown of Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy, but it feels out of place, mostly because this movie is about guys getting shot in the face. Still, Killing Them Softly has its moments, and the cast is game. If only Dominik could decide what kind of movie he wants to make.

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Killing Them Softly/R, 97 minutes/Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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