Killing Them Softly is a series of good to decent scenes in search for a complete movie. As much as I found it to be plodding, at times incoherent and somewhat unnecessary, you still have to give credit to director Andrew Dominik, who at least try to stretch his prolific muscles and give the audience a film that takes a complete 180 in style and tone from his previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford.
That title is perfect for a lazy film critic because if you write it three more times, it fills an entire review. But I don’t want to be thought of as cutting corners, so it’ll be referred to as Jesse James from this point on.
As a major western fan, I still think Jesse James is an unsung masterpiece, one of the most underrated and original members of the genre. When it first came out, critics accused Dominik of aping Terence Malick with his assured, wistful yet grandiose dramatic approach. The somewhat whispering and expositional voice-over didn’t help his case much either. Yet I thought of it as a stand-alone, bona fide great film and eagerly awaited his next outing. So you can imagine how excited I was at the thought of Pitt and Dominik reuniting.
Dominik can be accused of many other shortcomings this time around, unfortunately, but self-repetition is not one of them. This is a direct, violent, highly stylized crime drama that’s as close to Jesse James in style as My Little Pony is. Before I begin pointing out its many flaws, I’d like to state that I admire the fact that Dominik at least tries to expand as a director while more critically acclaimed auteurs like Wes Anderson keep crapping out the same movie as if from a cookie mold.
The main problem with Killing Them Softly might be beyond anyone’s saving. The higly-stylized ensemble crime drama is a genre that is so stricken with its own clichés and is so played out, that it might be damn near impossible to create a highly original and personally involving example anymore.
You know the drill, a bunch of major screw-ups bumble their way through a robbery, the big crime bosses get pissed off, send a bunch of fashionable tough guys to take out the trash, mayhem, blood and guts ensues. In this case a couple of dimwits (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob protected card game and hired killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is dispatched to “take care” of them.
With such a simple premise at hand and nary a three-dimensional character to be seen within a hundred mile radius, Dominik tries to inject his screenplay with some intellectual heft by juxtaposing his story with the 2008 financial crisis and the presidential election. As if the symbolism isn’t clear enough, he also has Pitt deliver a heavy-handed monologue doing the heavy lifting for the remaining audience who still hasn’t got it.
There are a couple of inspired scenes in the film. The robbery by the two idiots is handled with a lot of tension and is not uber-stylized like some of the other violent scenes in the film (A hit shown entirely in slow motion especially goes on way too long). But a lot of others fall flat and some are completely unnecessary. When all is said and done, what was the point of James Gandolfini’s character’s existence in the entire film? Killing Them Softly is an ambitious crime drama that falls short of expectations, especially after the superb Jesse James. But I’m sure a filmmaker as resourceful and creative as Dominik will bounce back.