Killing Them Softly (2012)
Written & Directed by Andrew Dominik
In the fall of 2008, with the presidential election and the financial crisis playing out in the background, Frankie and Russell carry out the robbery of a Mafia-run poker game. Planned by their friend Johnny “The Squirrel” they target a competition run by Markie, a man who once held up his own game and so now suspicion surrounds him. They figure everyone will think Markie did it again and he’ll feel the brunt of the mob. However, the Mafia calls in Jackie, a well-known hitman who immediately knows Markie isn’t this stupid. It’s only a matter of time until all parties involved in the heist are found and Jackie has to deliver his revenge. From there, things get dodgy as the film meanders off, focusing on side characters and slowing the momentum of the story way down.
Killing Them Softly appears to be a film that stalled filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s career somewhat. This is the first film of his I’ve seen, the previous two being Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which I need to see, and have heard rave reviews about for over a decade). This movie does not appear to have landed well with critics, and I can see why. There is a sense of potential in the film’s first act, the performances being given by Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are fantastic. Then Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan playing off of Richard Jenkins as the mob go-between adds to the fun. It’s around that time you begin to realize that there’s no momentum or sense of direction. We had a tense hold-up scene at the poker game, and the inevitable offing of those involved is being stalled for no real good reason.
I’ve had a hard time grasping what exactly Dominik is trying to say in this movie. He wields subtext like a hammer, making sure speeches from Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Hank Paulson are heard in the background. It begins to become evident that Dominik is trying to draw parallels between the financial crisis and the way the players in this crime story are operating, but I’m at a loss as to what he’s saying. In the middle of the movie, we have moments of brilliance, especially with James Gandolfini’s aging hitman at the end of his line. Gandolfini fleshes out a complicated figure, charismatic but unlikable, one of those types the actor was masterful at creating. However, he is written out of the movie offscreen while we get another blaring political speech in the middle of a bar while other characters drink.
I suspect Dominik was being influenced by some better-made sources: The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. Because there are so many other movies swirling around in Dominik’s head while working through his creative process Killing Them Softly feels overstuffed with ideas but underdeveloped as a cohesive plot-driven film and unfocused as a potential character study. By the end of the picture, you don’t care about anyone because you haven’t been allowed enough time to get to know them so when the bodies start dropping the most you can elicit is a shrug. There’s some gorgeously framed image along the way but not enough to recommend anyone rush out and find this movie.