Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a graceful masterpiece. You sunk into that 160-minute film, blissfully lulled by the elegance of its characters, its pace, its language. It’s true, hardly anybody went to see it, and it was largely unrecognized by the Academy. Their mistake.
Dominik’s follow-up, Killing Them Softly, is a disaster by comparison. Sure, it’s often entertaining in that ’90s-gangster-film kind of way, filled with thugs who are contemplative, wry, and wise beyond their chosen profession. But if names such as Squirrel and Dillon don’t mean anything to you now—Dominik adapted Killing Them Softly from a George V. Higgins novel—they likely still won’t mean anything after you’ve seen the entire film, which hacks the story down to 97 minutes without ever giving you a sense of who these people are and why you should care.
That it stars—and “stars” should probably be in quotation marks—Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini deepens the disappointment. Liotta’s hardly in the film at all, Jenkins’ character is poorly defined, and though Gandolfini and Pitt have some good one-liners and mesmerizing monologues, their characters feel like square pegs shoved into round holes, forced into the story to fluff it out.
The plot’s beginning and ending is focused on Frankie (Scoot McNairy, appropriately dirtbaglike), an all-purpose thug who persuades his boss, Johnny (Vincent Curatola), to recruit Russell, another all-purpose thug (Ben Mendelsohn), to help Frankie rob a card game run by Liotta’s Markie. The idea is that since Markie once orchestrated a robbery of the game himself and eventually confessed to his fellow players—to their amusement, weirdly—they would assume it was he who did it again, allowing Frankie and Russell to get off scot-free.
It seems to work, and that’s where Pitt’s Jackie comes in. He’s asked to “really talk” to Markie—i.e., to rough him up good—and the deed is done. Then, for some reason, Mickey (Gandolfini) enters the picture, meeting up with Jackie and telling him about his parole and marriage woes. (His speech is one of the most captivating and sympathetic moments in the film.) But all Mickey’s concerned with is hookers and booze, so Jackie writes him off.
Where is this going? I’m still not sure, but cinematographer Greig Fraser’s camera frequently ruminates on the televised faces of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, talking about the tough economy and the “community” of America. (Their presence might hope to underscore the financial aspects of thug life, and to dissipate the notion of gangster fraternity—in Dominik’s film, it’s really just every man for himself.) The title itself comes from Jackie, who equates “killing them softly” with quick, cold hits, as opposed to dragging out the punishment to the point at which the victims are sobbing and begging for their lives.
Regardless of its poor structure and character development, Killing Them Softly is randomly amusing, with Tarantinoesque touches like robberies committed by criminals wearing ridiculous yellow housework gloves. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of violence, but when there is, it’s graphic and often rendered in slow-motion so you don’t miss any details. And it’s all accompanied by a cheery early-20th-century soundtrack, with songs such as “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Love Letters.” Overall, these small details keep the film from failing entirely. But a D+ isn’t much better than an F.