In the first few scenes of Andrew Dominik’s masterful "Killing Them Softly," you think you are in the presence of two idiots who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re being ordered to pull off a robbery. They’re the kind of guys who never figured out how stupid they were, and those kind of guys don’t last long in crime novels. You know they’re marked men for their stupidity alone.
This is a film that peels open slowly like an onion – stylized violence, piercing dialogue, the occasional blood spatter set to a familiar tune, a la Scorsese. But it was never meant to be a Scorsese film, nor a Tarantino film, though it makes you think it is from the first few scenes.
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The two men pull of the heist remarkably well, considering. “You know they’re going to kill you, don’t you?” says Ray Liotta to one of them. But the thieves continue, and off they go with the loot. Seems easy enough. Except that it never is. Enter Brad Pitt, who is hired to come in and clean up the mess. He makes a deal with Richard Jenkins to bump off one guy, but another hit man has to be brought in to bump off the other guy. The hit man turns out to be James Gandolfini, whose story just keeps getting worse from the minute he steps off the plane.
Pitt will have to fix the job and he does so with no remorse. After all, why should he have any remorse? These people are all criminals in one way or another. Dominik, whose last film was "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," has updated the attitude in George V. Higgins' crime novel to reflect the general mood in the country. The dialogue is brilliant: “I was drinking before you came out of your father’s cock,” says Gandolfini.
There’s no getting around it. "Killing them Softly" is a deliberate indictment of the American capitalist system; the 2008 meltdown wasn’t only Wall Street, it was a systemic failure in the way our country was designed to function. From the beginning of the film through its duration, Dominik chooses as a backdrop the moment Obama took over the White House as Wall Street was collapsing. In the midst of this crisis, Obama promised change. But when the pieces fell apart, Obama had no choice but to work with the banks, to hire the same people responsible for the crisis. Big business, big crime, no difference.
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The film doesn’t point the finger at Obama. It merely draws the parallel in a direct and obvious way that stuff went down, illegal things happened, and it’s up to you in America to look out for yourself, so let’s dispense with the idealism. It is a depressing, nihilistic way of looking at the state of things, but you can hardly blame anyone for still feeling the pain.
Pitt is particularly good in this role, so comfortable in his own skin now he’s simply a joy to watch. His character is skilled, practical, focused. He says he doesn’t like killing up close, when his victims can beg for their lives; he prefers to kill them softly, when they don’t know what’s coming.
Gandolfini is scary/funny as the neurotic, misogynist hit man driving fast toward a brick wall. His weakness: booze and hookers. While his appearance in the film might seem random, it really isn’t. When you look at the Wall Street bailouts, the people hired to fix the problem never really got the job done. It is quick and dirty, this business of robbing the American people blind. And it was clumsy.
"Killing Them Softly," some will say, hits you over the head with its message. But that, I think, was the whole point. What’s it going to take?