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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘Killing Them Softly’ (2012): Review

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Directed by: Andrew Dominik || Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Anthony Katagas

Written by: Andrew Dominik || Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, Vince Curatola

Cinematography by: Greig Fraser || Editing by: Brian A. Kates, John Paul Horstmann || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 97 minutes

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Ray Liotta doesn’t get much time to shine in this screenplay, but at least he’s better used than Gandolfini.

Eager to match James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) as one of the most heavy-handed films in recent memory, Andrew Dominik’s uber-cynical portrayal of America possesses all the bluntness of a sledge hammer, yet lacks any of the accompanying emotional force. Killing Them Softly strives to expose America and its financial-corporate infrastructure as what its writer-director believes they are, which is a cutthroat, organized crime syndicate. The ultimate message of the movie is that “America is not a country, it’s just a business.” This concept is interesting in theory, but the way it is executed is so clumsy, awkward, and in many cases, downright laughable, because most every plot device in the story feels forced, contrived, and drowning in tedious cynicism.

As a straightforward crime story, Killing Them Softly isn’t that bad, because its heist scenes and hit-job set-pieces feel tense, exciting, and are beautifully shot. The story is furthermore boosted by a strong cast composed of Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and a who’s who of gangster-actors, including James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Vince Curatola.

The way all these storylines intersect and come together is admirable, although many of the actors other than Pitt have relatively little to do. Gandolfini’s appearance is the most disappointing, because his character serves no purpose in the story whatsoever. Both Liotta and Curatola are cool to see, but they too have little screen-time other than their spectacular death scenes. Pitt is the star of the show, but we never get to know him well or feel any sort of connection with him. He is a cold-hearted asshole with a shotgun, and although Dominik may desperately want to liken the American corporate-political overlords as lawbreaking, parasitic assholes, having a main character who is totally unlikable and not terribly interesting is bad storytelling. 

The only character we feel sympathy for is Scoot McNairy, but he too is given sparse screen-time and his fate is obviously sealed from the moment we meet him. He’s also not likable either, as his character is spineless and weak. I’m not sure if he is supposed to represent the everyman, or the ordinary citizen being taken advantage of by the powers that be, but either way, his execution, like much of the story itself, is underwritten and hamfisted.

Probably the worst thing about Killing Them Softly is how clumsily all the political symbolism is communicated through the story. The film’s tone and moral message are as awkward and juvenile as Avatar’s. It’s that bad. As the story is supposed to take place during the height of the economic collapse of 2008, we are bombarded by speeches from both Barack Obama and John McCain that are supposed to ring with irony and hypocrisy amidst all the violence and betrayal. Whenever the characters get into a car, they’re listening to political debates or speeches on the radio. Whenever Pitt walks into the bar, McCain or Obama are discussing social policy and finance on the television. The way these radio and television-conversations are edited into each sequence are so on-the-nose that it distracts from the seriousness of the picture. The film is almost always hitting you over the head with this perhaps truthful, but oh so immature political message.

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Pitt with his trademark shotgun.

On and on this stuff goes until Dominik exclaims what he’s been bursting to say the entire film. Pitt’s final monologue is so heavy-handed that I almost laughed out loud in the cinema.

I had high hopes for Killing Them Softly considering the immense fame surrounding Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), as well as the mafia-backdrop, but the movie is a huge letdown. However beautifully staged the hits are, none of the violence is able to save Killing Them Softly from feeling like the awkward, sloppily put together narrative it is.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Preachy and heavy-handed, Killing Them Softly is nowhere near as subtle or sublime as it thinks it is. Its dialogue is cornball and none of its characters are remotely likable or interesting.

However... the violence is hard-hitting and unforgivable. Liotta’s beating in particular is hard to watch because it feels so real. All of the assassinations are gorgeously shot.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED. I’m all for relevant social commentary, but you gotta show, not tell.

? And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…

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