Killing Them Softly Review

(2.5 STARS)

It took five years following The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for Andrew Dominik to return to the director’s chair. Five years is a long time to build anticipation for an obviously skilled filmmaker, and his skill is what gets Killing Me Softly through some narrative rough patches. But on the whole, this neo-noir is disappointingly mediocre.

The problem is the story. It moves slowly (like Jesse James) and goes nowhere (unlike Jesse James). Stakes? Utterly nonexistent. Yes, blood is spilt as the body count climbs, but Dominik seems indifferent—more interested in creating political equivalencies than utilizing his apparent skill in a satisfyingly cinematic way.

Brad Pitt stars as Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer called down to New Orleans in 2008 after a high stakes poker game is robbed by two know-nothing punks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) hosted the game and has a history of arranging such incidents for his own financial gain in the past, which means everyone in the city with a gun has his sights set on Markie. While America’s financial systems collapse around them, Jackie and his financier (Richard Jenkins) take quick action to keep the local mob economy afloat.

Their answer: Bring in Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hitman from New York, to show the community what happens to people who hold up poker games. It’s there when the film begins to go downhill. Pre-Mickey, Killing Them Softly is tense and darkly humorous. You realize as he’s meandering through his second or third lengthy soliloquy, however, that neither he nor this film has much interesting to say. And Gandolfini isn’t bad. It’s the screenplay that does him wrong and holds the film back.

Dominik’s directorial flourishes and Pitt’s confident performance are what salvage Killing Them Softly. It’s hard to decide whether the film’s best scene is a brutal but brilliant murder in slow-motion or Pitt’s final moment Richard Jenkins. The former is technically cool and tonally audacious. The latter ends a somewhat limp film with a kick-ass bang, and Pitt’s delivery is on point (both here and throughout the film). For something that never quite comes together, Killing Them Softly‘s highs are damn high.

From a performance perspective, however, Pitt’s in a league all by himself. To be fair, both Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) are unrecognizable, but neither performance sets the film on fire. Richard Jenkins, playing against type, is adequate. And Ray Liotta is merely on hand to get mercilessly beaten over and over again.

Dominik’s choice to mirror what’s going on here with the financial collapse of 2008 is both interesting and a little distracting. In lieu of traditional music, Killing Them Softly is scored by speeches given George W. Bush and Barack Obama. By the time Dominik gets around to crossing the Ts and dotting the Is of his thesis, the move makes sense. It’s the road there that’s riddled with pot holes. Like the film itself, it feels like this thread is going nowhere for way too long. One good (not even great) scene doesn’t make up for 90 minutes of tedium.

That’s ultimately what the film amounts to, unfortunately. While Dominik and Pitt prove to be a formidable duo for the second film in a row, the final product doesn’t touch Jesse James, which sparkled thematically and stylistically. This film nails the former (even though Greig Frasier’s great cinematography still pales in comparison to Roger Deakins’ genre-defining work on Jesse James). It’s the story, the plot, and Dominik’s message that feel, sadly, muddled at best.

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