All of the best films are, in one way or another, “about something.” Not content to simply tell their stories, the movies work in some sort of thematically sound message or moral about today’s society, and hope that the audience is smart enough to parse out what they’re going for. “Killing Them Softly” isn’t just a thrilling crime yarn — which it certainly is — it’s also an allegory for America, set directly after Obama’s election in 2008. While the film’s message may be sound, the subtext is weaved into the story with the subtlety of a flashing neon sign, making “Killing Them Softly” a film that’s much more engaging when it sticks to the simple stuff.
Things kick off with a misguided poker game robbery staged by small-time crooks Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). Because the game’s boss, Markie (Ray Liotta), previously admitted to robbing his own game, they expect the blame to land on him, but they’re not counting on the arrival of Jackie (Brad Pitt), an enforcer from out of town. As Jackie closes in on the true culprits, Frankie and Russell struggle to keep a low profile and stay alive.
It’s easy to see how writer/director Andrew Dominik saw the story of a few thugs wrecking the local economy by hoping to pin their robbery on someone else and drew an allegory relating to the U.S. economy circa 2008, but his constant use of political speeches as diegetic noise is tiring after a while. However, Dominik brings an eclectic sensibility to his hard-boiled crime tale, sketching a stylistic pastiche of different flourishes and elements that blend to create a consistently compelling story. His fantastically taut opening robbery stands out, as does a slow-motion killing done on a rainy night, but Dominik has notable problems with subtlety and some of his cues are too obvious by several measures.
For instance, Pitt’s entrance into the film is scored to Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around,” an uninspired choice that makes it pretty clear Pitt is there to rain death down and not much more. Pitt has a much smaller, less flashy role than the trailers might have you expect, but he’s funny and unflappable, serving mostly as a conductor for the rest of the cast to funnel through.
The rest of “Killing Them Softly’s” ensemble is stacked, and heavies James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins are both in their element as a fellow hitman and the man who hires Jackie, respectively. Liotta deserves special mention for his work as one of the film’s few voices of reason and most tragic figures — someone’s whose mistakes catch up to him in a way he never expected. As the duo in charge of robbing the poker game, Mendelsohn is absolutely repulsive but totally watchable, and McNairy (recently seen in Ben Affleck’s “Argo”) gives perhaps the film’s best performance, full of opportunity, optimism and — once he realizes just how deep a hole he’s dug for himself — terror.
Despite the quality of its acting and its unpredictably terse screenplay, “Killing Them Softly” struggles to sell its overarching message. Once the guns get put away and the bodies filed, Pitt has a final scene in which he interacts with one of President Obama’s first speeches about the economy, and it’s one of the most on-the-nose finales to a film in a while. It is a blatant attempt to funnel a political manifesto through sharply written dialogue. Despite the clumsiness of its message, “Killing Them Softly” is a modern noir that’s great when it sticks to exploring the underbelly of the dark, wet world its heroes inhabit.
Printed on Friday, November 30, 2012 as: New film hits storyline, misses political theme