It’s easy to forget that a struggling economy isn’t isolated in its reach. Politicians would like to believe that the middle class is a dying a breed, but one group of people they constantly fail to mention in their grandstanding rhetoric is how a depression will affect the seedy underbelly of America. You know, drug mules, mob bosses, and for hire killers. An economic downturn isn’t just for the lawful. If anything, a tumbling economic system poisons the streets even more, forcing the desperate to delve further into acts of illegal philandering. In the end, when the flow of money bottlenecks and a stream of blood flows freely, the American dream, at least when it comes to the scum that sticks to the shoes of the middle and upper class, is only achieved through reckless abandonment and a self-centered attitude. Andrew Dominik’s new film, Killing Them Softly, echoes the aforementioned point. Taking place a few days before the 2008 election, Killing Them Softly tells a tale about misguided individuals looking for financial prosperity in a country ready to collapse upon itself like a dying star.
At the forefront of this cynical tale is Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a spastic thief looking for an influx of cash to support a job that emanated from his probation. Frankie teams up with the perpetually stoned and soiled Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a dog napper looking to expand into the realm of drugs, for a job that revolves around knocking off an illegal poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). If accomplished, Frankie and Russell’s short term employer, “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), believes the robbery will rest on Markie, who has robbed one of his own poker games in the past. Frankie and Russell miraculously pull off their robbery unscathed, but the aftermath of their actions isn’t immediately recognized. Weeks later, death comes looking for our bumbling criminals in the form of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a thoughtful, realist hitman worthy of a musical introduction from Johnny Cash. Ever the consummate professional, Cogan fails to let distractions deter his intentions, which can’t be said for his fellow hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini), an aging drunk that prefers hookers to cold-blooded kills. Informed by a mafia informer known only as Driver (Richard Jenkins), Cogan quietly stalks his targets.
Even though the film’s advertisements want you to believe it’s action oriented, Killing Them Softly is far from it. Rather, it’s a lot like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs: Heavy on conscientious dialog, with violence intermittently entering the picture. The dialog itself, written quite admirably by Dominik, sufficiently propels the film forward. At its best, the dialog explores the deplorable depths of our characters and is wonderfully tethered to the film’s darkly comical moments. At its worst, the dialog tediously meanders as Dominik doesn’t seem interested in letting scenes expire when necessary. Scene over-extension typically emanates from any moment revolving around Gandolfini’s character who, by the time the film says its piece, feels superfluous, no matter how seismic Gandolfini’s performance is. Dominik also struggles with subtlety, as he fulfills much of the film’s scenes with many references to America’s economic downturn in the wake of the 2008 election. A few references here and there would’ve done the job, but Dominik’s overzealous attempts to establish the timing of the story often feels condescending, and it makes his characters appear as if they are overly obsessed with NPR and CSPAN, which would be counter-intuitive for many of them.
Honestly, the film would’ve been better served if it rested its point on the final monologue delivered by Pitt’s Cogan. Angry and concise, the final monologue is a killer piece of writing that is masterfully delivered by Pitt, and is powerful enough to make anyone a cynic, if only momentarily. Pitt’s performance isn’t his best, but he ensures that his character is a formidable harbinger of doom and cool. Dominik surrounds Pitt with a terrific cast that adequately captures the degenerates residing in his gritty tale. Even though most of them aren’t allowed the space or time to create memorable scenes, that’s mostly left to Pitt, they all give their characters enough wrinkles to make us wince when the barrel of a gun creeps up from behind. Dominik nearly has a fantastic crime noir on his hands, but tedious scenes and heavy-handedness disrupt what’s otherwise a mean, visceral, and poignant study on surviving in America when capitalism buckles under its own weight.