Friday, April 12, 2013

Interesting Characters In A Low-Plot Movie: Killing Them Softly

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters, Interesting thematic elements/narrative techniques.
The Bad: Exceptionally low on plot development
The Basics: In one of the most straightforward movies ever, Brad Pitt plays a hitman who takes a job to kill some people who stole from the mob.

When it comes to the crime movie genre, it is hard to do anything truly new these days. I mean, I love a good crime caper or mob-themes movie as much as the next person, but since The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) and Lucky Number Slevin (reviewed here!), I have been waiting for a film in the genre which truly challenged me. Unfortunately, after seeing Killing Them Softly, I’m still waiting.

That is not to say Killing Them Softly is bad. It is not. It’s not bad at all. However, it is fairly simplistic, at least on the plot front. The writers work very hard to pack in quite a bit in the way of character and Killing Them Softly actually has themes and a well-developed sense of philosophy to it that is usually lacking from the genre. I’ve not read the novel upon which Killing Them Softly is based, but it is clear from the very beginning that the film is attempting to make a larger statement on the world (or at least the United States) from the very beginning. That element works very well.

After the mob’s card game is knocked off by thieves, the local games shut down for a while. After they get back up and running, one of the mobsters, Markie openly admits that he was the one who orchestrated the heist. At that point, his peers take is as a joke and write it off. Now that the games are back in full swing, another operator decides to pull the same stunt on Markie’s game, figuring that the mobsters will just blame (and punish) Markie. The heist goes poorly, but it puts two young thieves on the run and the leader (Driver) hires the hitman, Jackie, to find and kill the guilty parties.

As Jackie tracks down the leads, he learns that one of the people he will have to kill is someone he knows, so he subcontracts to the struggling Mickey for that kill.

And that’s pretty much it. Jackie finds the responsible parties and kills them and then gets less money than he was promised.

Killing Them Softly has entertaining temporal mechanics – the past and current capers are mixed together as people tell the stories of the card games that get taken off. To illustrate the time differences, director Andrew Dominik smartly utilizes the clips that he is using to develop the film’s themes. Thematically, Killing Them Softly tries to illustrate that crime is a function of economy. To do that, interspersed throughout the film are clips of speeches from Presidents Bush and Obama. Depending upon whose speech introduces a scene (or is playing in the background), the viewers can figure out which part of the story they are watching.

The theme is a good one and it works well with the level of character detail in the movie. For significant portions of the movie, characters are simply sitting around telling stories or espousing their personal philosophies to one another. This comes up especially with Mickey, who is presented as a remarkably empathetic character, who has had love and loss mixed in with his life of crime. The character elements try to give a well-rounded sense of the fact that everyone in the film is a person, an individual with their own hopes and dreams. This is set against larger political and economic statements delivered by the politicians which group everyone together as cogs in a giant capitalist machine. It’s clever and well-developed.

On the acting front, there is nothing bad, but no superlative performances either. Whoa! James Gandolfini as a hitman?! Stop the presses! He is good, but his performance as Mickey is nothing at all audacious or surprising for the performer. Similarly, Richard Jenkins (Driver) in a position of authority and Ray Liotta as the smirking mobster Markie are utterly unsurprising. Virtually interchangeable are Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Trevor Long, and Max Casella, who play various named thugs throughout the movie. None of them are given the chance to develop their characters or really shine in Killing Them Softly. Again, no one in the film is bad, but none of the performances are at all superlative.

That brings us to Brad Pitt. Pitt plays Jackie and most of his role actually consists of looking interested as other characters talk to or at him. He is predictably charismatic as Jackie, but – like so many others in the movie – he is not given a lot to do to shine. He realistically plays a guy who is just going about doing what he sees as a job. He is the willing cog in the machine and the film ends at the moment that dynamic is actually challenged. As a result, Pitt shows up, does his thing and it is not one of the roles that actually stretches his talents.

That’s where Killing Them Softly ends up. It’s very average film and yet another one where I felt I saw most of the movie in the preview. It is good, not great and ultimately forgettable.

For other works with James Gandolfini, check out my reviews of:
Welcome To The Rileys
Where The Wild Things Are
The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3
In The Loop
All The King's Men (2006)


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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