Killing Them Softly

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‘Killing Them Softly’ is a film adaptation of the novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V.Higgins. As is the case with most adapted screenplays, I never read the source material, and thus cannot offer a comparative analysis. Reviewing the movie as a movie, I can say that it is has Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Richard Jenkins. It is directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous film ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’ I pretty much loved. So, with such talent both in front of and behind the camera, why did I hate this movie as much as I did? 

I hated this movie right from the opening. The opening is like nails on a chalkboard – very irritating sound editing which made me wonder if I had walked into the incorrect auditorium; one that is showcasing the umpteenth sequel to ‘Saw’. The movie then manages to momentarily escape the corner it’s locked itself into with some clever, but admittedly artificial dialogue. The film’s greatest strength is also a weakness. The problem here is Tarantinoism; wise-cracking hitmen who speak at an elevated level you wouldn’t expect. But, because this has been done to death now, you do expect it.

Mr.Dominik creates a dark underworld – one that is occupied by hitmen, drug dealers, drug addicts, and illegal card operators. My guess is this story takes place in Boston – my uneducated assessment based on the accents and geographical references. Scott McNairy and Ben Mendhelson are two idiots who must contend with the aftermath of robbing a syndicate card game operation, including the hitman (Brad Pitt) who has been called in to address this matter. Ray Liotta is the guy who oversees these card games, and of course, he likes to appear in movies such as these (brutally violent pictures that contain a minimum of 100 f-bombs). I liked seeing Pitt play a hitman with a very specific set of rules – he is cool and detached, and leaves the emoting to others. The film’s title is derived from this character’s refusal to kill people he knows personally – he doesn’t like it when feelings get involved, and so he “kills them softly” from a distance. The only two people who seem to know anything about him: the middle-management gangsta (Richard Jenkins), and a washed-up hitman (James Gandolfini). This is a world consisting of tropes and archetypes. Which is a polite way of saying clichés and pretentions.

Why was James Gandolfini’s character even in this? He is only in two scenes. His character’s personal life is a complete mess – his two dialogue-heavy scenes consist of him bitching about his marriage and talking about hookers. This is just an excuse to have Tony Soprano as a cast member. This character’s motivations and actions do not tie into the main story at all. It’s just filler – take these two scenes out, and it doesn’t impact the direction of the picture in the slightest.

I understand films such as these contain scenes of graphic violence, and rarely does it ever bother me. Here, it did. In one particularly brutal sequence that seemed never-ending, a character is beaten into a bloody pulp. It is just stomach-turning torture porn for the sake of being stomach-turning torture porn.  

What annoyed me most about ‘Killing Them Softly’ is its misguided attempt to be about something. The film is so preoccupied with creating an aura of meaningfulness that it comes off as meaningless, and ultimately phony. The cars, clothes, and griminess of the production design make it appear as if this story is taking place in the early 1990s. But, the television and radio edits make it clear that this movie takes place in 2008; specifically, the weeks leading up to the presidential election whereby every macroeconomist’s forecast of a financial crisis was proven to be accurate. The only thing I hate more than an incompetent movie is an incompetent movie that assumes the stupidity of its audience members; that audience members won’t be able to get the intended message without beating them over the head with it.

The political elements are so distractingly heavy-handed. During the robbery, the television in the background shows George Bush announcing the bailout and its financial effects on American families; this speech is being delivered as the thugs walk out the door with giant suitcases filled with cash. We also hear Obama’s speeches of hope and change in America. Yes, it’s an attack on the capitalist structure; but it is delivered to audience members in the most assaulting way imaginable. ‘Killing Them Softly’ feels like the polar opposite of what ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’ represented – this was an expertly crafted film that was quiet and subtle, and assumed a certain degree of intelligence from its audience members.

My verdict – rent/steam/download that one instead. Skip this one. QED.  

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