Blu-ray Review: KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Somewhere on my bucket list (which is admittedly not very impressive; it's mostly like "Finish Final Fantasy X" and "Watch Mad Men" sort of stuff) is to be polled for a Cinemascore rating, often a pretty good metric for a film's box office success or failure - you don't see too many flops earning an A from that opening night crowd. Likewise, the films that have all gotten Fs do not have impressive box office numbers, with the exception of The Devil Inside which was so cheap to make it was already in the black before the score was reported anyway. And it's worth noting that it sank like a stone after that; over 60% of its final $53 million take was earned on that first weekend.
But that is the exception; all of the other "F" films didn't open well to begin with, and with such poisonous word of mouth, never really had a chance after that first weekend. And that is how Killing Them Softly, a crime drama starring Brad Pitt, screen mobster icons Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, and an impressive roster of character actors (Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Sam Shepard) - in other words a seemingly surefire recipe for a hit film - managed to walk away with a pitiful $14 million take this past fall. A "misleading" trailer resulted in a bunch of angry idiots apparently dubbing the film one of the worst they've ever seen, neglecting to see that the movie was actually a lot more interesting than the familiar shoot em up the trailer suggested. So it joins other challenging (and good) films like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris remake and William Friedkin's psychological horror Bug in this exclusive club of films that were so hated by their opening night audience that they would (if Cinemascore had a full ranking on their site) rate far below any movie spoof from Friedberg & Seltzer.
So it's not much of a surprise that the trailer (which does indeed give a different idea of a movie; highlighting its few jokes and seemingly promising a teamup between Pitt and McNairy's characters when they don't even meet until the final reel) does not make an appearance on the Blu-ray, which is now in stores. There are a few deleted scenes (including one that shows, for about seven frames, Garret Dillahunt's otherwise excised character) and a generic EPK making of, but otherwise the film stands alone - no commentary from writer/director Andrew Dominik (working from George V. Higgins' novel "Cogan's Trade") or lengthy interviews, and certainly nothing about its poor box office showing.
However, the film is worth more than the cost of the disc; upon my second viewing I realized it might be one of my favorite non-horror movies of 2012*. And it's certainly more interesting than the trailer let on, which makes me think that maybe Robert Zemeckis is right when he says that audiences want their trailers to show them everything (including the end, as he proved with his smash hit Cast Away), or else they'd come out unhappy that they saw something more original than they were "promised." Set against the backdrop of the 2008 election and the economic crisis, Dominik's film shows how even the mob can be affected by a poor economy, and thus sprinkles (perhaps a bit too heavily) the narrative with real speeches from Obama and John McCain, with campaign promises and hopes for a better America, and even then-current President Bush discussing the crisis.
The problems start when Frankie (McNairy, with nearly double the screentime of Pitt, who doesn't even appear until the 23 minute mark) robs a card game run by local mobster Markie Trattman (Liotta). See, Frankie's partner Johnny (Vincent Curatola) assures him that it's a risk-free endeavor as everyone will suspect that Trattman arranged it himself, since he was known to have done it in the past. Pitt's character is hired by Driver (Jenkins, a goddamned national treasure and displaying terrific chemistry with Pitt, with whom he shares all of his scenes) to clean it up, but of course things don't go as planned - Frankie's pal inadvertently outs them to someone with ties to the organization that hired Pitt, a hitman (Gandolfini) brought in to assist proves to be unstable, etc. But there's a reason the problem needs to be solved, and quickly - all card games (and other activity) is brought to a halt until it's taken care of, because no one can afford to lose more money in this shaky climate.
On paper, all that sounds like typical mob movie stuff, and at times it certainly feels like one such film; especially with Tony Soprano and Henry Hill right there to remind us. But apart from a few quick scenes of violence (Liotta takes one of the most brutal beatings I've ever seen on film - and yes, this was shot on FILM, always a pleasant surprise in this day and age), it's nothing like your typical mafia film. There's nothing glamorous about it; even the guys who are higher-up (Driver, and Sam Shepard's rarely seen Dillon) don't seem to be living the life of luxury, and the grimy Louisiana neighborhoods it was shot in are hardly as impressive as Vegas or even the Bronx - no nightclubs and mansions here. So many mob movies glorify the life (at least in their first two acts), but you never get that sense here - it dares to make being a hitman look not only like a drag, but filled with the same sort of bureaucratic bullshit you'd deal with at a regular job.
To go back to the Cinemascore a second, it's interesting how many of them lost their audience in the very end: Silent House's insane reveal, Devil Inside's (misunderstood) "URL ending" and Wolf Creek's grim conclusion are all probably directly to blame for such a low grade. Killing Them Softly keeps the tradition, its final scene (seemingly taken directly from the book, if Wikipedia's entry is to be believed) can certainly be accused of being abrupt, ending mid-confrontation between two characters arguing over payment (as Obama's election night speech plays in the background), but I fail to see how knowing whether or not he got his money would have changed things, as opposed to say, Wolf Creek - if Mick Taylor had been caught/killed, perhaps it would have walked away with a C (the typical score for a horror film).
Personally, I was thrilled that the trailer was "hiding" the film's real assets, because it turned out to be a lot better than the wannabe Coen thing I was expecting. I'm no connoisseur of this sort of movie, but I've seen the botched kill and double-cross type scenes a hundred times (though the initial robbery is a wonderfully tension-packed little setpiece, always a finger twitch away from turning into a bloodbath) - what I haven't seen too often is a lengthy monologue from a hitman who is upset about his impending divorce that he knows is his own fault. It's also rare to see a middleman character like Jenkins' Driver, who doesn't fully grasp the mentality behind anyone's actions, only the bottom line - the sort of person anyone whose ever had a desk job can recognize as the guy you know is above your pay grade but is clueless to what anyone actually does (and seemingly serves no purpose himself). A mob movie that shares more DNA with Office Space than Goodfellas? More, please.
Anchor Bay now handles all of The Weinstein Company's output, which amuses me since they got their start re-releasing independent horror movies and TWC is pretty much synonymous with Oscar bait - somewhere in their office there's a couple of King's Speech DVDs next to a stack of Halloween 4s. While they skimped on the extras (possibly a choice on Dominik's part - he didn't contribute much to Jesse James, either, though Chopper had some generous supplements), the transfer is quite good and it comes with a digital copy, so you can spread the wealth to a friend or loved one - based on the box office take, there are still plenty of people in the world who haven't experienced this dark, intriguing drama. Highly recommended.
*I stress the difference because I watch at least 365 horror films every year and thus miss out on a lot of the "normal" films. So while I put this near the top of that list, I have to mention that there's a lot I didn't see, including three of the Best Picture nominees and common #1 pick Holy Motors.