Seriously, I’m not absolutely sold on this movie but it absolutely did not deserve to tank as much as it has since its wide release last weekend. Not only did it fizzle out on its first weekend in 7th place w/ a measly $6.8 million, but it was awarded a terrible CinemaScore of an F (CinemaScore is an audience polling system that measures average audience responses to movies after a viewing. It is widely regarded as one of the most accurate measures of a film’s performance at the box office over its lifetime in theaters). Killing Them Softly is only the second non-horror movie ever to get this poor of a response from audiences (the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in 2002), with the other six given to horror titles (Bug, Wolf CreekThe Box, The Devil Inside, Silent House and Darkness) A sad fate for such an inspired, critically appreciated film, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Killing Them Softly is brutal, bleak, and somewhat unclear in its message at times, but a nice sprinkling of dark humor paired with some of the most beautifully shot sequences I’ve seen all year make it a must see for any fans of the mob genre.
Robbing a weekly mob bosses’ poker game? What could possibly go wrong! Surprise, surprise, turns out the answer is EVERYTHING. When two lowlifes (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to carry out this brilliantly conceived plan, they soon realize that they have bitten off more than they can chew when a careless mistake leads mob hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt). Calling in an old colleague (James Gandolfini) to take out the mastermind of the robbery, Jackie proceeds to orchestrate the perpetrators’ demises and close the book on the entire incident.
I was a bit surprised by how much of the screen time was taken up by characters other than Pitt, in particular by the two unlucky thieves, Russel and Frankie. Of course the ad material focused on Pitt’s presence and he is still essentially the main character, but nearly half of the focus of the film is on his targets. McNairy does a great job of conveying the overconfident surface and terrified core of Frankie, and I think that the fact that he was often the most likable character contributed to the film’s poor reaction from audiences (seeing as the film made the most likable character the target of the less likable protagonist, Frankie). Russel is a fairly typical bumbling junkie, but he does bring some of the best moments of dark comedy into the film (Also, this is the second dark comedy this fall that involves one of the main characters making money by stealing dogs).
Three other characters of note are the luckless game runner Markie (Ray Liotta), past-his-prime hitman Mickey (Gandolfini) and the anonymous Driver (Richard Jenkins) who acts as the intermediary between Jackie and the mob. Liotta has surprisingly little to do except to receive repeated beat-downs. Gandolfini returns to his Sopranos roots but is given a very grating and somewhat pointless role to work with, and I never got the feeling that Mickey would be able to stand alongside the multitude of other, better characters he has played. Jenkins is given a little more to do, as his character’s frank, businesslike exchanges with Pitt set the theme of the amorality of capitalism that are echoed throughout the film.
Lastly, we come to Pitt as Jackie. I’m actually a big fan of Pitt and think that it is a great injustice that he hasn’t received an Oscar yet for any of his roles. I doubt he’ll get it here, but his performance is solid nevertheless. Jackie is portrayed as level-headed and exceedingly practical, yet that practicality takes the place of morality in his character. While I liked this take on the typical main character, the difficulty it creates for any empathetic audience member to relate to Jackie is another likely reason why general audiences have rejected the film so soundly.
I could go on and on here, but I’ll keep it brief. Director Andrew Dominik’s highly stylistic direction stood out to me more than any performance did here, and I honestly think that he deserves an Oscar nod for his direction (or at least his cinematography). Two scenes in particular stand out to me; one in which Frankie is trying to have a conversation with a drugged out Russel in which the picture and sound artfully fade in and out with Russel’s consciousness, and another involving a slo-motion drive by shooting that reminded me of this summer’s similarly unappreciated Dredd. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was the film’s repeated use of audio clips from the years surrounding the financial collapse of 2008. The theme that those audio clips introduce is made clearer by the end of the film, but I strongly believe that that theme would still have had just as much impact without those clips.
The Verdict: 7.5 Superior
+ Strong Performances by Pitt, Jenkins and McNairy
+ Incredibly artful direction/cinematography
+/- The mix of Dark Comedy and Drama skewed a little darker than most will care for
+/- The anti-capitalism subtexts occasionally get in the way of the rest of the story
Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews: 8.5/10