The Dark Tale of 'Killing Them Softly'
By Scott Elliott
November 30, 2012
Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is a dark, gritty gangster ﬁlm with a not-so-subtle political message.
The story is set in 2008, and the U.S. ﬁnancial crisis and election serve as a backdrop for this movie about the robbery of a high-stakes card game. Fans of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will enjoy Dominik's dark take on the American underworld, but others may ﬁnd it too graphic and dim. Although not for everyone, Killing Them Softly is a well-made ﬁlm many will enjoy.
The ﬁlm centers around a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Several years back, Markie saw an opportunity to knock off his own card game and make a lot of cash. He got away with it but a few years later let the cat out of the bag. Everyone decided to give Markie a pass, but now that he's running another card game, Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) sees an opportunity to stick it up and blame Markie.
Johnny hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to do the job.Everything goes as planned until a few days later, when Russell brags to one of his friends about what they did. Once the word gets out, the bosses know Markie didn't hold up his own game again and there are others to blame. Jackie (Brad Pitt), a smooth-talking hitman, is brought in to clean everything up. He brings in Mickey (James Gandolﬁni), and everything begins to escalate.
Dominik's last ﬁlm was the magniﬁcent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This ﬁlm does not live up to that work, nor does it live up to a Scorsese or Tarantino gangster ﬁlm, but it still has its high points. It's brilliantly shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also shot the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty. It's well-directed. Dominik uses slow motion action sequences that are both graphic and beautiful at the same time. The acting is top notch. Brad Pitt shines in maybe his darkest role ever. Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolﬁni also turn in superb performances.
Killing Them Softly could have easily been a great ﬁlm, but one thing keeps it from reaching this goal. It is evident throughout the ﬁlm that Dominik set out not only to make a good movie, but also to make a political statement. Political speeches by George Bush and Barack Obama are scattered through the ﬁlm. At one point, two main characters are talking and you can barely make out what they are saying because a political speech is playing in the background. All of this comes to a climax with a speech delivered by Pitt in the last scene of the movie. Pittʼs speech is brilliant, but it is almost a letdown because of all the other political activity leading up to it.
The reality is that Dominik is a good ﬁlmmaker. He has made one great ﬁlm and one good ﬁlm. In recent years, with the masters of the mafia away—with Scorsese making a childrenʼs ﬁlm, the outstanding Hugo, and Tarantino working on a western, the much anticipated Django Unchained—Killing Them Softly may be the best gangster ﬁlm we're going to see for a long time.
If you like your ﬁlms dark and dirty, then Killing Them Softly is for you. It presents a world where everyone is in need of redemption. Just ignore all the political talk, sit back and enjoy the ride.