- Rated R
All photos © Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s been five years since Andrew Dominik’s historical Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” divided audiences, with some calling it a modern masterpiece and others disregarding it as a pretentious bore, so it's nice to see that his new movie isn't nearly as polarizing. Though it’s hardly surprising that Dominik would take a similarly unique approach to the gangster genre, "Killing Them Softly” is at least more accessible than his previous work. A gritty and brutal crime thriller that draws allegorical comparisons between mobsters and corporate America, the movie may be a tad too political at times, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless thanks to a fantastic cast.
Set in New Orleans during the build-up to the 2008 Presidential election, the film begins with small-time crook Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his lowlife Aussie pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) knocking off a card game run by local mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) with the knowledge that Trattman will likely be the one fingered for the heist after word got out that he’d robbed his own game before. Of course, even his bosses know that Trattman wouldn’t be dumb enough to try it again, so they bring in steely mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to track down the men responsible and deal with them. But when Jackie realizes that he knows one of the guys involved, he hires a veteran hitman (James Gandolfini) to help out, only to discover that the washed-up gangster is more trouble than he’s worth.
There are a lot of people that are going to walk out of “Killing Them Softly” disappointed, but that has more to do with the marketing campaign than the film itself. Though there’s a certain familiarity to the story, and director Andrew Dominik has cast several actors famous for playing mobsters in the past, “Killing Them Softly” is unlike most typical gangster movies. Sure, there are a few sequences that showcase the kind of violence and brutality that audiences have come to expect from the genre, but the film is mostly comprised of lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes that are almost Tarantino-esque in nature. They occasionally don’t go anywhere, and some drag on a little longer than they need to, but the dialogue is so sharply written and the characters so richly imagined that it’s easy to be sucked into the seedy criminal underworld that Dominik has created.
But while the film’s general theme – that a criminal organization isn't very different than a corporation in that its actions are driven primarily by money – is certainly fitting, the anti-capitalist message feels really forced at times. This business-minded approach to the whole gangster subculture ultimately boils down to some not-so-subtle political undertones that appear throughout, usually in the form of radio and TV sound bites by Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and it threatens to ruin the movie for those that aren't interested in being lectured. Thankfully, the film is just as enjoyable without all that baggage, due in part to its excellent ensemble cast. Brad Pitt is effective playing the strong and silent type once again in his second outing with Dominik (though it’s far from his best work), and James Gandolfini gets a few meaty scenes to chew on, but it’s Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn who steal the spotlight as the amateur criminals.
Some of Dominik’s more artistic flourishes are totally unnecessary (although the slow-motion shots are gorgeously composed), but in allowing each scene time to breathe, he provides his actors with a platform to really shine. He also builds some remarkable tension in the process, particularly in the opening heist and in a scene towards the end of the film between Pitt and McNairy that will literally have you on the edge of your seat. In fact, by making it feel like less of a gangster movie, “Killing Them Softly” feels oddly more genuine as a result. “Jackie Brown” is still the best when it comes to talky crime thrillers, but Andrew Dominik’s latest film at least deserves to be part of the discussion.