When you start watching Killing Them Softly, you might be confused about why this Brad Pitt film seems to have a distinct lack of Brad Pitt. He doesn’t turn up until nearly 30 minutes in, but certainly makes his presence felt when he does arrive.
Before he comes on-screen we follow Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two small-time hoods who are talked into ripping off a mob-controlled card game. As you’d expect the local criminal fraternity isn’t top impressed by this, and so hire Jackie (Pitt) to find out who’s responsible and hunt them down.
Mixed up in all this is Markie (Ray Liotta), who Frankie and Russell have set up to be the fall guy and could well end up paying the price whether people believe he was involved or not. Jackie sets out to do his job, preferring a cold, efficient method of offing those responsible, rather than getting too up close and personal. However he makes a bit of an exception for Frankie, forcing him into a situation the criminal hopes will save his life.
Killing Them Softly isn’t a film for everyone. Some will find its stop-start style rather frustrating. The movie is filled with long, talkie scenes that often seem to have little to do with anything, punctuated by sequences of high drama and extreme violence. It’s a style that some will warm to and find oddly absorbing, while others will just get bored. To honest initially I was in the latter camp, but slowly the film pulled me in. It’s also one of those movies that stuck with me long after the credits rolled and seemed better in retrospect than when I was actually watching it.
While many have described it as a darkly comic tale, I can’t say I found all that much humour in it. Indeed it struck me as a pretty intense tale mired in a grubby world of bad people doing ever worse things. Normally I’m not a fan of that sort of film, as I don’t quite get what’s entertaining about a bunch of assholes being increasingly horrible to one another, but Killing Them Softly brings something else to the table that makes it a little more worthwhile.
It’s set in the early days of the financial crash, with speeches by Bush, McCain, Obama and their cohorts acting almost like the movie’s score. The film wants to hammer home the parallels between the scummy world of mob economics with the wider world of American capitalism – taking things like killing off the competition rather literally.
The world that Killing Them Softly is set in is derelict and collapsing, with little room for anything genuinely human. Instead it’s all about who can get what from whom and enforcing a form of extreme capitalism at the point of a gun. Pitt gives a speech about how pointless it is to beat up somebody when you know he’s just going to be killed in the end – why not get to end and cut out the unpleasantness in the middle? However it’s explained to him that the guys hiring him are skittish about murder, and while that’s what will inevitably happen, they need to work their way up to it, even if that means being massively more unpleasant than just putting a bullet in a guy’s head. It’s a cold, harsh look at the way the world works, drawing links to Wall Street and the banking bailout, that the film seems to suggest was simply about restoring order to the corruption.
While the guys at the top in Washington continually talk about community and America coming together, this is a world stripped down to how the film believes the US really works – as Jackie puts it, “In America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” Although the points Killing Them Softly tries to make sometimes get a bit murky and unclear, it certainly adds an extra layer of interest to what it often a rather dark and nasty tale.
There are also a few scenes that will stick in your head, both for their visual style and the level of violence. Ray Liotta in particular doesn’t do well – getting wince-inducingly pummelled in a rather horrible beating, before things get even worse with an impressively put together scene in a car. It really is a case of kicking a man when he’s down, both literally and figuratively.
However if you are a fan of violence, just be aware that there’s a lot of talking in amongst bullets-to-the-head and other nastiness. But when those moments come, they certainly pack a punch, both because of Andrew Dominik’s visual style and the clinical detachment the characters have about what they’re doing. Indeed it says something when the most empathetic character is the amateur criminal who robbed the card game to start with.
As you’d expect with a film that often lays on the visual style, it looks good on Blu-ray, with the extra pixels really showing off the violence and decaying city. It’s particularly important in this case as the film’s visual tone is pretty dark, so it really does help to have a format like Blu-ray that can handle blacks well.
There’s not too much in the way of special features, with just a few passable interviews with the cast and crew, and some trailers.
Overall Verdict: Although it’s sometimes a little slow and its points can be murky, Killing Them Softly often pack a visceral punch and offers a pretty damning look at capitalism and its lack of humanity.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac