The last time Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik worked together, the result was the fantastic, neo-western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so with them reuniting for Killing Them Softly, expectations were, to understate it, quite high.
The film is about a mob enforcer, who hunts down small time crooks after they heist a mob-protected poker game. The enforcer is Jackie, played by Pitt. Much like with their previous collaboration, Dominik gets an excellent understated performance from Pitt, which works fantastically well in counterpoint to some of the more frantic characters across from him like James Gandolfini’s Mickey.
Gandolfini steals the film, bringing explosive energy and power that utterly consumes the screen whenever he’s on it, it’s impossible to not be focused on him. The rest of the ensemble are all on top form, from Ray Liotta’s Markie, who has to put it mildly, a bad run in with the mob, that results in explosive, visceral violence. Richard Jenkins plays Jackie’s driver, and his character’s name is that simple – Driver. While it may seem like a minor, uninteresting role, Jenkins’ gravitas and excellent chemistry with Pitt make his scenes some of the most enjoyable in the film.
The films most gaping flaw is its utter lack of subtlety or restraint. Not in terms of its violence, which is surprisingly rare, and very brutal, including an exceptionally well made death scene that shows that Dominik is truly developing his technical eye as a filmmaker. The lack of restraint comes in the political message of the film. It opens with presidential speeches and campaign posters. And then, during the mob poker games, there are always clips of politicians talking about the economy. It’s painfully clear that Dominik is comparing mobsters to politicians, and while it’s certainly an interesting message, he uses so much that it feels as if he;s flogging a dead horse. I can’t help but wish that after the fourth or fifth time he draws the comparison that someone would just tell him that we get it.
The pacing is by no means perfect, and although it establishes the story and some of the characters well, particularly in giving Liotta some excellent scenes, it feels as if the film is just meandering through typical narrative motions before Jackie arrives on the scene to shake things up. Perhaps that’s an issue with a slightly predictable story, it has to go through typical motions to begin with. But once it breaks free of them, it’s an excellent piece of filmmaking, and it has a fantastic, understated ending that’s etched into my mind, and was so much more effective than the political hammering that plagued the film.
By no means perfect, Killing Them Softly is hampered by a predictable first act, and an overwrought political message. However, it’s fascinating to see how Dominik has developed as a filmmaker, and his exceptionally talented cast form one of the best ensembles of the year. It’s slick filmmaking with a savage end result, and well worth seeking out.