“Killing Them Softly” is the latest effort from New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik and is his first film since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” It also reunites Dominik with actor Brad Pitt. “Jesse James” was intriguing, but felt a little too long. At the same time though, one can’t help but be curious about that 4-hour version of it floating around somewhere. “Killing Them Softly” seems like a completely different film in comparison since it’s only a little over an hour and a half and flies by in an instant despite the original cut being 2.5 hours long.
Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) has a clever scheme to rob the mob during a poker game. The only problem is he needs two other guys to do it. He brings in Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie brings in his drug addict and dog shuffling friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to pull off the job. After the heist is successfully executed, the blame rests solely on the shoulders of a man named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) even though Markie had nothing to do with it. As the criminal economy hits rock bottom, an enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to restore order.
“Killing Them Softly” is kind of like if Larry (Michael Pitt) and Tommy (Michael Stuhlbarg) had an entire movie to have entertaining conversations and screw up the entire time instead of being killed off in the opening scene of “Seven Psychopaths.” Russell’s little dog operation is very similar to the one Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) are also a part of in “Seven Psychopaths.” The opening credits of “Killing Them Softly” are unique yet extremely irritating. They cut back and forth between Frankie walking down a tunnel as Obama speaks and a black background with white text for the credits. The transition starts off slow at first, but becomes more and more frequent. It puts you on edge and maybe that’s the point.
The entire film revolves around really bizarre conversations. Think really off the wall type conversations not unlike those found in “Seven Psychopaths” or the more sex driven conversations between Mads Mikkelsen and Kim Bodnia in Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Pusher.” Every time two people are in a car, you should pay close attention because it’s almost always entertaining. The humor is very dark and covers everything from sex to dish gloves to the economy and everything in between.
One of the best examples of the humor in the film lies within the meaning of the title of the film. Jackie is having this conversation with the driver (Richard Jenkins) and Jackie asks him if he’s ever killed anyone before saying some people get very “touchy feely” whenever they’re about to die. Jackie then turns to the driver and says, “They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill ’em softly. From a distance.”
There are some really fantastic camera techniques utilized in the film. When Jackie is first introduced, he gets out of his car and walks onto a construction site. The camera starts at his feet and slowly pans up to the back of his head as he walks. The camera is propped on the car door as Jackie gets in and out of the car in a scene near the end of the film. One of the most uniquely edited scenes is when Russell is talking to Frankie. After shooting up and being awake for a week straight, Russell begins going in and out of consciousness while he’s talking and smoking a cigarette. What you see on screen is almost like the light at the end of a dark tunnel or when you squint your eyes in the bright sun.
There is this really incredible beat down in the rain. The combination of the harsh sound effects, the puddles of blood, the angry assailants, and the helpless victim dancing clumsily in the pouring down rain makes you cringe a bit. The scene is the first real taste of violence in the film and it’s so sudden that it almost takes your breath away. Slow motion also deserves a mention. Jackie’s first kill is done in slow motion and it is just full of downright mayhem and destruction.
You do wish there was a bit more to “Killing Them Softly” though. The ending is just magnificent as is the last speech given by one of the characters. It’s some of the best written material to be put to film this year, but it would’ve been nice to have seen a bit more action and a little less talking. Everyone in the film listens to politics and it doesn’t really all come together until that final scene. The biggest setback is that Mickey (James Gandolfini) is kind of pointless in the long run. Jackie and the driver make him useful, but it’s done off-screen. In the meantime, Mickey is useless and does nothing but drink himself stupid and screw every hooker in town.
Next to “Lawless,” “Killing Them Softly” is the other must-see mob related film you should go out of your way to see this year. You don’t expect it to be as funny as it is, but it’s also extremely intense. The film is like a lion stalking its prey. It slowly creeps up on you the entire film until it chooses to pounce and show its true colors. “Killing Them Softly” is a volatile piece of crime cinema that is ferocious and violent as hell.