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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Killing Them Softly



This review is a counter-point to my friend Andrew’s positive review on at isolatedpress.wordpress.com as Killing Them Softly was only recently released to the Atlanta area in the past week.

Director Andrew Dominick holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart. His 2007 effort “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was and still is a thrilling experience and was #3 in my Top Films of 2007 (only eclipsed by No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood). It was 160 minutes, yet I never felt one bit of it, as I was enthralled by a career-best performance by Brad Pitt and the striking vistas lensed by Dominick and Roger Deakins. It’s a film where afterwards you say: “where did the time go?” To say I anticipated Dominick’s follow-up and reunion with Pitt was an understatement. It is with regret that I must say the 97 minute Killing Them Softly is, with some rare exception, a slog.





I won’t dwell on the plot specifics in as much detail, as Andrew has covered much of it in his previous review, but for the sake of background: In late 2008, Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is a mob hitman brought in by a committee of the East Coast Mob and their representative Driver (Richard Jenkins) to take down a couple of thugs (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) and their respective mastermind Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), who robbed a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who is also caught in the mob’s crosshairs due to the aforementioned robbery.

The film itself is very preoccupied with two things, highlighting the Economic Collapse of 2008 and how the world of crime within the film is a micro-economic allusion of said collapse (a message the film repeats ad nauseum), and talking. It’s been said that All The President’s Men is a film about “opening doors and answering phones”, in contrast Killing Them Softly is about “people talking at one another” and not specifically TO one another, which is a glaring hole within the work. In Killing Them Softly, everyone has a story to tell, and they tell it endlessly, unfortunately the stories told are not terribly compelling. It’s a bit like the worst excesses of a Tarantino film taken to a new extreme. Do you recall the endless posturing of Death Proof and interminable conversations about Italian Vogue, Brit-rock and the like that derailed any momentum the film could have built up? Imagine those types of conversations occurring about 5 more times and you have the general gist of the scripting within Killing Them Softly. To be fair, these extended conversations are far less vapid but they are also lack the wit of Tarantino that has become his hallmark. Its a film where every action beat is punctuated with 10 minutes of dialogue, that while welcome at first quickly begins to wear the viewer down into submission.

Additionally, one gets the sense that Dominick is clearly in love with his own work and the admittedly shallow messaging laced throughout. When the curtain rises, the title credits are interspersed with bits and pieces of Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and the auditory assault in this sequence is quite inspired. This allusion continues throughout, as characters walk past television sets with then-President George W. Bush giving a speech here, or they’re listening to political talk radio in their cars, this occurs so often you begin to wonder if the movie takes place in a parallel dimension where only political content is the only media to absorb, it even infests the titular card-game via a tv screen that’s hums on during the robbery. While I agree with Andrew’s point that Cogan’s final statement to Driver in the film’s conclusory scene places a definitive stamp on the film’s central ideas, everything beforehand is lacking in subtlety. By the end of the film, I felt like I had been walked through Dominick’s thesis blow by blow and that is a very unsatisfying feeling. There’s a great story to be told regarding the 2008 collapse and the effect it has on the criminal element, but Dominick does very little with it at all. This is a film that could have done with more showing and alot less telling, particularly when the telling is as uninspired as this.

Luckily, the performances on hand are to be held in the plus category. Pitt, while a much more minor player than the advertising campaign would have you believe, plays Cogan as a menacing enigma who is clearly aghast at the bureaucracy of modern organized crime, but accepts lower fees for his services because its simply the place in which we are economically. Gaining much more screen time are Mendelsohn and McNairy, where the former, who is always a welcome presence makes the most of his screentime as a seemingly always grimy looking, doped up louse and injects some much needed levity into the proceedings. McNairy for his part does good work, yet takes on a strange Adam Sandler-esque affection to his voice that  I found a bit distracting. James Gandolfini blows into the second act of the picture as a fellow hit-man brought in by Cogan to assist but isn’t quite what Cogan remembers, his presence is welcome initially but of all characters, his falls the greatest victim to the overly wordy dialogue given to him by Dominick. Ray Liotta on the other hand, does some nice quiet work that is sure to go underappreciated and he is involved in what I found to be the two most exciting sequences in the film that luckily involved very little mention of political tom-foolery.
Killing Them Softly is certainly not a bad film by any means, and in spurts, it’s quite brilliant. Greig Fraser sets up some of the beautiful shots I’ve seen this year in any film, and if you are a cinemaphile at all, you will find much to admire in his work here. The fact that he is DP on the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty adds even more anticipation for me in regard to that release. There are also some very well spun action sequences that highlight the bones of the story itself is quite strong, but again these are small spurts and unfortunately the whole affair proves that wonderful tech and great acting can’t always save a ponderous script, and boy is it ever ponderous in places.
I give it 2 out of 5 stars (or a C- if you prefer).
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