Dry cleaners owner Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) uses the business as a front for his criminal activities. He wants to rob an illegal gambling operation run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). He chose Markie’s game because several years ago another of his gaming rooms was robbed by a couple of guys with shotguns. It turned out Markie had hired the robbers and kept most of the money. Sometime later, he admitted to planning the robbery and his mob bosses decided to let it slide. Johnny believes the mob will think Markie pulled the same stunt again and take their anger out on him. Johnny hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob the game. They pull off the job and get away. Russell is a heroin addict who talks too much and says the wrong thing to the wrong person, letting the mob know who really pulled off the robbery. The bosses hire Jackie (Brad Pitt) to punish those involved. Jackie meets with Driver (Richard Jenkins) who acts as an intermediary between the bosses and Jackie. The plan is to kill everyone involved in the robbery and Markie also since “the Street” believes Markie did it again. Since Jackie knows Johnny, he brings in Mickey (James Gandolfini), another hit man, to handle that job but soon realizes he’s a hopeless, depressed alcoholic who can’t be trusted to pull himself together, so Jackie will have to handle it all himself.
“Killing Them Softly” is an artsy crime drama. It strives to lay bare the seamy underbelly of the mob and the criminals who live that life. It offers the audience an unflinching view of the unsavory characters that do what they are told or do whatever is necessary to stay alive. It is a dark, gritty, oily, dirty film that doesn’t care whether you like the characters and presents them all in a rather unflattering light. I’ve seen other films like this and wondered if the people in the real world are as desperate and lowly as their counterparts that occupy the screen. If they are, it’s not the kind of life anyone would want to live. I’m also not sure that anyone would want to see a film about them.
“Killing Them Softly” is a fascinating film that kept my interest from start to finish. I just didn’t like it very much. All the characters are varying degrees of pathetic and evil. The darkest of them all is probably James Gandolfini as the from-out-of-town hit man Mickey. He’s seen better days; he laments the probable end to his marriage and his impending imprisonment on a weapons charge in Maryland. His long life of crime has beaten his spirit down to the point where he can only find comfort in booze and prostitutes. Jackie needs him in some kind of shape to do a job but Mickey refuses to leave his hotel room. He gives long speeches eulogizing his marriage and complaining about the weapons charge he sees as unfair, all the while chugging martinis and bourbon longing for a hooker who is good at her job. He’s deeply depressed and becomes a kind of emotional vortex whenever he’s on screen. Seeing a man in this much pain should make you feel some sympathy but Mickey has a quick temper and is about as unlikable as any character you’re likely to see in a film.
While more functional and somewhat better with people, Jackie is almost as odious. He’s also an extremely efficient killing machine who prefers to carry out his duties at a distance instead of listening to the target cry and bargain and pray. He believes in making it a quick kill instead of torturing his victims first. It’s an odd kind of professional code he works by. Jackie is about the closest thing to a “normal” character this movie has (and he’s not that close). Brad Pitt looks about as unglamorous as he possibly can in the role. His hair is slicked back, he wears tinted glasses that scream “I’m a bum!” and his face is tired with a less than healthy color. There’s no hope, no joy and no desire in his face; only the resignation to a life that will probably end badly one day. Pitt is very good in the role and if the movie were a bit more “audience friendly” he might have a chance at an Oscar nod; but I doubt that will happen.
The film, directed by Andrew Dominik who also directed Pitt in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” is perhaps above my head and above the heads of 90 percent of the usual movie audience. It builds up tension and attitude in odd ways with music and camera tricks. We are given an idea of what a heroin addict experiences after shooting up with muffled sound and blurry camera work. Music used to set the mood is often out of much different eras than the setting of the film. Slow motion scenes try to give the film a sense of epic grandeur while lingering close-ups are an effort at intimacy with the characters. It all works together to make “Killing Them Softly” a jarring and, sometimes, annoying experience. While I was interested in how the story would play out, at the end I was wondering what all the effort was for. There’s nothing revelatory or enlightening about what happens and it left me with a feeling that the film wasn’t completed. I am certain there’s more to the stories of Jackie, Mickey, Driver and others but the movie ends rather abruptly and it left me wondering what exactly I had just watched. To be honest, I felt a bit cheated.
“Killing Them Softly” is rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use. The violence is graphic and bloody. There are numerous gunshots to the head with copious amounts of blood and brain flying out. There is a very brutal beating that seems to last far too long. There are numerous crude sexual references made by Mickey and Russell. We watch Russell shoot up with heroin in one scene. Foul language comprises about half the script.
While I enjoy gritty and violent crime dramas, “Killing Them Softly” is so gritty you feel like your skin has been rubbed raw by the closing credits. The performances are great and the actions of the characters are interesting in a looking-at-a-car-crash kind of way; but in the end, the film feels incomplete with enough dangling threads to knit a sweater. You probably wouldn’t want to wear that sweater since it likely would smell like cigarette smoke, beer, sweat and vomit. This film is good, but I’ll be OK if I never see it again.
“Killing Them Softly” gets four guitars out of five.
There are three films for you to choose from in this week’s movie poll. Vote for the next film I see and review.
A Royal Affair—An epic romance about the love triangle between a German doctor, the queen of Denmark, and her deranged king.
Anna Karenina—Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel, the story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart.
Playing for Keeps—A charming, down-on-his luck former soccer star who returns home to put his life back together. Looking for a way to rebuild his relationship with his son, he gets roped into coaching the boy’s soccer team.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.