Killing Them Softly is exactly the kind of film I hate to review but love to discuss, a film just interesting and ambitious enough to ably disguise what might be genuine failure. It obviously has some big ideas and doesn't mess around with subtlety. But the execution is muddy enough that I'm not sure if it succeeds. If you like crime films, you should probably go see it. If you're looking for a follow up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I don't think you'll come away very happy.
This is a very talky movie. Overly so. That approach can be either thrilling or a bore, and Killing Them Softly falls somewhere in between. Despite the script's best attempts, conversations often go on much longer than necessary and fail to justify their length with the interesting notes and details that might normally add to and embellish characters and their world. The James Gandolfini scenes are particular offenders in this regard. A lot of time goes to this nearly superfluous character, but his inclusion to the story ultimately offers only thematic reinforcement rather than narrative value, and it's just not worth the investment.
Some of the conversations find better success. Pretty much any time Richard Jenkins (who once again plays Richard Jenkins) and Brad Pitt talk, things get more electric. Pitt's not really embodying anything with his performance, here. The writing easily defines his character beyond any typical Hollywood blandness, but he chooses to underact the part. It's sort of the opposite of his Ocean's performances, where he just gets by on being Brad Pitt. It's Mirror Universe default Pitt, complete with goatee. That means instead of smiling a lot and eating food in every scene, he just looks tired and smoke bunches of cigarettes.
His character represents old school mob ideals, which clash with the new corporate mob mentality presented by Jenkins' exasperated middle-man. Pitt and Jenkins have good chemistry, and their scenes together provide the glue that holds the whole enterprise together, both narratively and thematically. Since so much of this works it would be erroneous to call the film a total failure. These two share the film's incredible Coen Bros.- esque closing scene, which either brings the whole film together or takes it one step too far into preachy territory depending on whether you think it's okay to build an entire feature around a point Brad Pitt's character can sum up in one sentence, and was probably already said better in No Country for Old Men.
A lot has been made about Killing Them Softly's politics, which are unavoidable since nearly every scene contains some video or audio of either Obama, Bush 2, or McCain talking about the 2008 Financial Crisis. The connection between desperate criminal activities and a looming recession manage to somehow be simultaneously unclear and embarrassingly obvious. I don't really know why a movie about a robbed card game and shifting mob business practices needs to have so many news clips, but I do know that I rolled my eyes when Jenkins gives Pitt less money than expected and refers to it as "recession" price.
Actually I do know why the film needs this stuff. Its narrative is so stock that it would be useless without aspiring to be about something more. Thanks to America's "every man for himself" mentality, two dumbass criminals (one of whom is Australian) knock off Ray Liotta's card game, and Brad Pitt has to get them for it. That's pretty much it. The thematic stuff supposedly justifies the film. The actual film does not.
Of the two dummies, you're supposed to care about the nice one played by Scoot McNairy, who is basically just doing a Casey Affleck impression. We don't spend that much time with him though. Once Brad Pitt shows up, the film goes into a long period where McNairy and his partner are absent from the narrative so we can hear James Gandolfini breathe a lot. While we sympathize with McNairy for his ability to look scared and out of his league, we don't actually get to know him very well.
Really the unsung star of the film is Ray Liotta as a character put through so much misery that his repeated tragedies occasionally blur into near Looney Tunes exaggeration. WIth very little screen time and dialogue, Liotta somehow manages to create the film's most complete character, but it's unclear whether director Andrew Dominik actually knows that or just got lucky.
Speaking of Dominik, his stylistic choices offer yet another angle in which Killing Them Softly both fails and succeeds. Visual embellishments fill the film, some minor and some calling great attention to themselves. Almost none of them serve much purpose, though. That's not necessarily a bad thing. We go to films to see cool stuff, after all. But like a lot with this film, certain stylistic sequences start well but go on long enough to wear out their welcome. A scene where Dominik attempts to visually translate a heroin user's experience being on the nod, goes from interesting to aggravating pretty quickly. On the other hand, Killing Them Softly has some of my favorite opening credits of the year. Dominic's work isn't awful, but it lacks the assured beauty of The Assassination of Jesse James and seems like an unexpected step backwards.
In the end, Killing Them Softly might achieve its thematic ambition, but its intended statement is smaller than you'd think and may not be worth the examination. It offers occasional pleasures, but earns neither the praise nor the disdain people have been giving it.