Review: ‘Killing Them Softly' is harsh with heavy-handed message

Brad Pitt stars in the new film “Killing Them Softly.” (The Associated Press)

Published: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 6:44 p.m.

It's a rare thing to see a movie treat viewers with such utter contempt as “Killing Them Softly” does.


‘Killing Them Softly'

Rated: R
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn

This is a movie that is so dead set on having a BIG MESSAGE yet is so unsure of the audiences' intelligence that it proceeds to smack you over the head with its theme using all the subtlety of a mafia beat down. It's a shame really, because if writer/director Andrew Dominik had trusted himself and the audience a little more — and gotten out of his own way — he might have produced something special.

The heavy-handed messaging begins with the opening scene, which sees Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a small-time hood who's down on his luck, meet with prospective partner in crime Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) in a particularly bleak stretch of urban blight in 2008. As Frankie emerges from a tunnel onto a decaying, trash-strewn swath of industrial development, the camera pans up to show him underneath a billboard displaying the smiling mugs of John McCain and Barack Obama. Subtle it isn't, but Dominik goes one step further and uses an Obama speech as a voice-over, making sure that nobody can possibly miss the juxtaposition he's trying to make. Political commentary in the movies is all well and good, but when you bludgeon the audience with it so relentlessly, it diminishes its impact and yanks the viewers out of the immersive experience.

Anyhow, Frankie needs Russell's help because he wants to rob a mob poker game, based on a tip from the slightly less small-time gangster Johnny (Vincent Curatola, formerly of “The Sopranos”). Johnny says the robbery won't get traced back to them because it's run by Markie (Ray Liotta), a gangster who once robbed one of his own games. The idea is that Markie will take the fall while Johnny, Frankie and Russell will make off with the money. In spite of their general incompetence, Frankie and Russell pull off the heist, which prompts the mob to bring in Jackie (Brad Pitt), an ice-cold enforcer, to restore order.

The rest of the movie centers on Jackie and his efforts to shore up the criminal economy by tracking down and eliminating the culprits behind the robbery. There's great potential here; by stripping away the glamour of the mob and showing how the cold calculations of those at the top leave underlings utterly disposable, Dominik puts a modern twist on some of the more tired mob-movie tropes.

It's too bad he ruined it by overselling the parallels between the mob and modern corporate culture. During the robbery sequence, for instance, a TV shows former President George W. Bush pontificating on the financial crisis, and the audio mix makes sure you don't miss what he's saying. It's distracting to the point of being infuriating, because it means we're focused on the messaging of the movie instead of what's actually happening on screen. Similar moments are scattered throughout the film, and the overall effect on the movie is disastrous, leaving the audience understandably feeling as if their intelligence is being insulted.

In spite of their director's blatant disregard for subtlety, the cast gamely tries to save the material. Pitt is fantastic in bringing the amoral, calculating Jackie to life. His scenes with the anonymous suit who represents the mob leadership (Richard Jenkins) are the highlight of the movie, as the two of them break down who gets to live, who gets to die and how much it will cost in thoroughly businesslike tones. James Gandolfini, returning to the mob genre after avoiding it for years in the wake of “The Sopranos,” turns in a stellar performance as Mickey, a mob lifer Pitt brings in to handle a hit. At first Mickey looks like he's simply Tony Soprano 2.0, but Gandolfini gradually peels back the layers to reveal a deeply wounded, sentimental man who fits poorly into Pitt's remorseless worldview. As for the small-time hoods, Mendelsohn has a ball as the dumb, selfish Russell, and McNairy makes Frankie into a very sympathetic and tragic figure.

In the end, though, the cast can't save this movie from the morass of propaganda Dominik shoves in the audience's face. It's a tragedy, because too many movies don't have much to say at all, but in this case the movie is too concerned with itself and not enough with the people watching it.

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