Judge Clark Douglas is strumming your pain with his fingers. What a jerk.
In America, you're on your own.
"I like to kill 'em softly. From a distance."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in New Orleans in the fall of 2008. As a general rule, robbing underground card games is a bad idea. After all, rob one card game and you've got a whole bunch of unsavory criminals hot on your tail. However, small-time crooks Frankie (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) think they've found the exception to the rule. Local poker ring operator Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas) is known to have robbed one of his own games in the past. He was forgiven, but if it happens again he's going to be in deep trouble. Frankie and Russell figure that if they rob the card game, everyone will figure that Markie is responsible and take out their anger on him.
The operation is successful, but alas, not everyone is falling for Frankie and Russell's set-up. Professional hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life) is called in to investigate the matter, settle some scores and clean up the mess. Finding the individuals responsible isn't that difficult, but the politics of determining who needs to be punished proves to be a surprisingly complicated process. Who will survive Cogan's bloody, complex operation?
In 2007, Andrew Dominick delivered a modern American masterpiece: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Though the film failed at the box office, its reputation has only grown in the years since its release and cinephiles everywhere eagerly awaited Dominick's next project. In late 2012, the director returned with Killing Them Softly, a modern crime movie in which he re-teamed with Jesse James star Brad Pitt. Alas, the film received mixed reviews from critics, performed tepidly at the box office and even earned an "F" Cinemascore grade from ordinary moviegoers. No, it doesn't come close to approaching the majesty of Dominick's previous effort, but I'm hopeful that the film will eventually be appreciated as an exceptional, well-acted crime movie that occasionally trips over its own ambition.
The most problematic element of the film is also the most unique element: Dominick's decision to use George V. Higgins' crime novel Cogan's Trade as a springboard for an angry, politically-charged sermon. When we aren't hearing Dominick's classy (if slightly obvious) song selections on the soundtrack, we're generally hearing the voices of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, analyzing the country's economic situation and making lofty promises as the film's ironically cynical crime story plays out. Yes, the idea feels a little forced at times, and there are even moments where it damages the film's credibility (since when do gangsters spend all of their time watching C-Span and listening to NPR?). Even so, there's enough painful truth in what Dominick has to say to prevent us from wishing that he had made a more conventional crime flick. Pitt makes a cynical speech in the film's final scene that has all the subtlety of a monster truck rally, but which the actor nonetheless sells with the forcefulness of his performance. Sure, the film is flawed, but how many other crime movies wrap up with bitter, surprisingly resonant jabs at Thomas Jefferson?
Still, the movie does actually work on its own terms as a crime movie. The card game robbery is executed with great skill and tension; it's memorable enough as a set piece to serve as the event from which the rest of the film flows. The film isn't overflowing with bloody moments, but Dominick handles the violent scenes with reflective stylishness. When he underscores one unflinching hit with the melancholy strains of "Love Letters," it initially seems like nothing more than a little bit of tacky showmanship. But there's something else there: Dominick seems to be making a sincere statement on the strangely compassionate manner in which Cogan handles his hits (getting things done as quickly and painlessly as possible without putting the victim through any emotional trauma beforehand).
Brad Pitt has grown by leaps and bounds as an actor in recent years, and he uses his movie star charisma to strong effect as the film's central figure (the opening act focuses primarily on McNairy and Mendelsohn—both of whom are stellar—but Pitt takes center stage for the remainder of the film). Richard Jenkins provides some subtle laughs as the exasperated businessman tasked with serving as a liaison between Pitt and his employers, while James Gandolfini delivers a couple of terrific scenes as a hitman whose best days are far behind him. Even the bit players do solid work, though it's disappointing to see the great Sam Shepard wasted in a throwaway role (though the role could have been whittled down, as Dominick's initial cut of the film was two and a half hours while the final cut is a lean 97 minutes).
Killing Them Softly has received a strong DVD transfer that does a nice job of highlighting Greig Frasier's exceptional cinematography. The film has a cool, muted, overcast look that serves the cynical tale well, and detail is strong throughout. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is strong, too, handling both the quiet moments and the louder sequences effectively. I plan to pick up the Blu-ray release at some point to experience the film in hi-def, but it's a solid DVD release. Supplements are thin, unfortunately: a few deleted scenes and a 6-minute EPK-style making of featurette. Bummer.
Killing Them Softly may not be a worthy follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it's a compelling and distinctive crime movie on its own terms. It doesn't always work, but I'll take a partially successful flick with a unique vision over a more successful flick that sticks to a predictable formula. It's worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Deleted Scenes
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