“Killing Them Softly” left me the most conflicted of any 2012 film. It’s packed with great scenes and enthralling performances, but the mob drama ultimately isn’t anything worth getting excited about.
Brad Pitt reunites with Andrew Dominik, his director in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” to play a new character type for him —a professional mob enforcer named Jackie Cogan who isn’t Pitt’s normal heroic character. Pitt’s 2011 Best Actor Oscar-nominated performance in “Moneyball” was stronger, but he makes Jackie more than the one-note character he could have been in other hands.
He doesn’t show up until close to the 30-minute mark, but you won’t miss him thanks to the excellent opening act featuring Frankie (a breakthrough performance by Scoot McNairy, “Argo”) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, “The Dark Knight Rises”) — two small-time ex-cons looking for work during the waning months of the 2008 presidential election. While they hear talk of change and hope, Frankie and Russell don’t see it on the depressed, bleak New Orleans streets they call home. But they do know how to pull a score and they’ve just been tipped to a new opportunity. All they’ve got to do is rob a mob-protected card game run by Markie (an enjoyable Ray Liotta), who already pulled the same stunt. Dominik expertly stages the scene with quick close-ups mixed with long shots to bring an edge-of-your-seat type tension to the audience as if they were in the midst of the robbery.
The mob calls in Jackie to track down the thieves via their liaison (Richard Jenkins, “Liberal Arts”), who is just as annoyed with the mob’s bureaucratic dealings as Jackie, who miss the “good ‘ol days.” Dominik, who also wrote the adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade,” channels his inner Quentin Tarantino and sets the majority of the film with these extended dialogue scenes. They’re great at first, but it becomes Dominik’s go-to storytelling crutch and loses its impact over time. The biggest offender is the subplot with Jackie’s old hired gun, Mickey (James Gandolfini,“The Sopranos”), which seems included more to court award buzz than aiding the film’s story.
Dominik also stumbles with weaving in sound bites clips from Obama, McCain and Bush on the U.S. financial state to frame the depressed, desperate state of the characters. It’s a stretch that every New Orleans lowlife is watching CNN or listening to political talk shows instead of Saints’ highlights.
He fares better with the action scenes, where he unflinchingly portrays the violence in an ugly, uncomfortable fashion that’s almost a commentary on the glamorizing of violence in action movies where he shows it’s far more brutal than summer blockbusters make it appear.
My biggest issue with the film is that it almost seems too calculated. Dominik sets everything up so matter-of-factly that there’s little room for spontaneity or anything unexpected. The two times he cuts loose — a rainy shootout and an imaginative drugged out conversation — show an inspired director going beyond the safe confines of a mob film. Had he brought more of that creativity to the film and cut some of the unnecessary talky scenes, it could have been the start of a new wave of modern era mob movies. It’s merely competent instead of trend-setting.
Rating: 6 out of 10