"Killing Them Softly" Carries A Small Stick

Is Brad Pitt more of a brand name than an actor? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone championing him as an American treasure, but it would be foolish to dismiss the handful of very good films that he’s been a part of. Pitt was one of the last actors to reach 20th century levels of mega-fame (Bogart, Redford, De Niro, etc.), and also one of the first to have to deal with the media scrutiny of the 21st. He’s been a force at the box office for 20 years now, but unlike his peers (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington among them), no one can agree if he’s a great actor or just a great star. He’s got the looks, the social life, and the filmography, but does he have the performances? Does he have the charisma to stand up to the all-time greats? Pitt’s latest, “Killing Them Softly,” is a film that would never have gotten a wide release if it weren’t for his involvement, but Pitt – and the film – fails to wow.

“Killing Them Softly” is the third feature by writer-director Andrew Dominik, and its screenplay was adapted from the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by the late George V. Higgins. While the film is, at its core, about the criminal underworld, audiences expecting a broad or even vaguely crowd-pleasing crime drama should look elsewhere. The film is aggressively minimalistic, which is actually refreshing – for a while. The opening scenes sizzle with dissonant sound cues and political jabbering (courtesy of the 2008 Presidential campaign, during which the film is set). We’re thrown into a world inhabited by two lowlifes, Frankie (Scott McNairy, “Argo”) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, “The Dark Knight Rises”) who squawk about moneymaking schemes and unenviable sexual escapades. These are terrible people who know they’re terrible people, but there’s a certain acceptance in their voices. Perhaps even a hint of contentment.

McNairy, an emerging star, gives his character a unique voice (both literally and figuratively) that borders on a nervous screech, while Mendelsohn spends much of his screentime in a stupor – sometimes drug-induced, more often personality-induced. By the time these two rob a Mob-funded card game, they’ve run away with the narrative. With Pitt’s introduction at the 25-minute mark, we’re so involved with Frankie and Russell that the theoretical lead, Jackie Cogan, seems like an afterthought. Pitt plays Cogan’s cynical mob enforcer surprisingly loose and we’re never given enough insight into the character to form much of an opinion. His aloofness is transferred to the audience and whatever the picture is trying to say about the nature of capitalism and the “American Dream” is lost in the ether. The political bent of the film is regrettably, albeit humorously, relegated to catchphrase status in the final moments of the film.

Most of Pitt’s screentime is limited to mundane chats with Richard Jenkins (a driver) and James Gandolfini (a contract killer), and no matter how well they deliver their dialogue, it’s hard to care about what they’re saying. Never before has such a simple story with so few players been so deliberately hard to follow, and Ray Liotta’s underwritten role as mob boss is one of the main reasons the narrative is so opaque. His cries of “I didn’t do nothing” at the hands of some vicious thugs are heard loud and clear by the audience, but evidently went unheeded by Andrew Dominik and his editors. The character doesn’t do anything, and the actor’s talents are thrown away to make an understated point about the unfairness of life.

The strong point of the picture is the aforementioned sound design, and it highlights the offbeat, microcosmic nature of the story. Political dialogue (via TV and radio) is more prevalent than music, and it lends a dreamy but real sense of cinematic shade, as if the weight of the real world is always looming over these despicable pawns. The economy is tanking and the increasing desperation on the faces of Frankie, Russell, and Jackie only makes them more unlikable. But what does our lack of sympathy for these people say about us? What does it say about the film or the filmmakers? The movie’s brevity makes a second viewing a more palatable proposition, and some of its idiosyncrasies might become more understandable in a second go-round. But “Killing Them Softly” doesn’t quite deserve its audience. It doesn’t give a damn about expectations or its inescapable air of narcissism. And its frostiness extends beyond the work itself – moviegoers likely won’t respond well to a Brad Pitt “star vehicle” that consigns him to a supporting role.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 30, 2012
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Andrew Dominik
Screenwriter: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Sam Rockwell, Richard Jenkins, Bella Heathcote, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Linara Washington
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use)