Silver Screen: Killing Them Softly **1/2
Killing Them Softly is, nominally, about a bunch of gangsters who can’t stop watching the news. For a bunch of guys who spend the vast majority of the film’s one-hundred-minute running time talking about how nothin’ matters to them except getting their money, they sure seem to have a personal stake in the 2008 election, which functions as the ubiquitous backdrop for a boilerplate gangland plotline. Writer/director Andrew Dominik is clearly is going out of his way to avoid the familiar beats of the genre, but he’s too forward with his ambitions and too satisfied with his own stylistic flourishes to notice that absolutely nothing is happening. The confluence of bluntly stated, simplistic metaphors and rote thriller plotting might just make Killing Them Softly the worst fairly watchable movie of the year.
Killing Them Softly is based on George Higgins’s 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, but Dominik, who adapted the script, overlays elements of Higgins’s story and his crackling street patois with his own series of contemporary concerns.
The plot is about as bare-bones as it gets for a pulpy genre thriller. Mid-level wiseguy Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, a.k.a. Johnny Sack from The Sopranos) has an idea for a score. He knows what everyone else knows: that Markie (Ray Liotta), who runs a mob-protected card game, hired gunmen to rob his own operation so he could take the lion’s share of the cash. Feared mob enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard) couldn’t prove it, but suspicion hangs around Markie. Johnny Amato hires a pair of grimy thugs (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) to rob Markie’s card game a second time, assuming that bosses will think Markie is up to his old tricks and he’ll take the blame.
With Dillon temporarily out of the picture, enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to sort out the mess and make sure whoever is responsible pays the price.
The movie’s real concern, though, is the American financial system. Using snippets of campaign speeches from George W. Bush and Barack Obama, heavily peppered with references to the financial meltdown of 2008, Dominik states and then restates and then overstates his thesis that the real criminals are the guys in Washington operating this corrupt system, man. Like, the only difference between stealing with a gun and stealing with a pen is the amount of money you’re stealing, man, dig?
What a stunning connection! I wonder if Andrew Dominik came up with this all by himself, or if he just watched The Godfather and The Sopranos, or perhaps listened to every self-satisfied pundit on MSNBC four years ago?
It’s not that Dominik’s point is wrong-- it’s that his point has been made many, many times over in much subtler ways. He fleshes out the allegory with a couple of supporting characters: Richard Jenkins as Pitt’s clueless and overwhelmed boss, the underworld equivalent of a government bureaucrat; and James Gandolfini as the original fixer called in to take care of the problem, but who has grown so indulgent with his vices that he can no longer even take care of himself, much less other people’s problems. To oversimplify an already pretty simple metaphor, Gandolfini would be the stand-in for the SEC or the Fed, the regulating bodies grown fat and ineffective; Jenkins is the government, who can’t distinguish from a problem and its symptoms; the thugs are the rogue traders who steal too much and disrupt a system that was established to steal from the people at a slow, steady rate; and Cogan, as made apparent by the blustery speech that concludes the movie, is the real American antihero who knows the only sensible thing to do in a corrupt system is to get what’s yours and get out.
Boring not because Dominik avoids making a more traditional, action-heavy picture, but boring because the entire film serves as a delivery system for political insights that wouldn’t fill half a cocktail napkin if you wrote it out in longhand.
If the political allegory was secondary to the story, it’d be a mildly interesting aside, but for Dominik here, subtext is the text. The actual gangland plot is otherwise just an excuse for a series of highly stylized scenes, some of which really sizzle, but all of which feel like someone trying too hard to subvert a familiar genre.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.