Now, it used to be when Hollywood wanted to make a political statement, but also wanted to do so in a semi-inconspicuous manner that they would turn to the ever trusted western to do the trick, with the Civil War often filling in for the then too controversial Vietnam War in subject matter, and cattle kings and big land barons filling in for the evils of modern corporate greed and various other ills. Nowadays though, the classic western has been pretty much supplanted in that station by the more contemporaneous gangster movie. It’s an effective enough strategy when executed correctly, as the Sopranos managed to do masterfully in their seven year television run.
However, a film maker must watch and guard against being too heavy handed in such cinematic exercises or the movie (not to mention its intended audience) could greatly suffer as a result. The overriding theme should always serve the story, and not the other way around, or you might as well just go out and make a documentary on whatever subject it is you wish to bloviate about. With all that being said, that brings us to our feature film for this review; ‘Killing Them Softly’ is basically a satirical social commentary on the American/Worldwide financial crisis of 2008 thinly veiled behind the cover of a classic mafia noir movie. The film plays it right down the middle for most of the movie, although the constant sound bites of then President George W. Bush and future President Barrack Obama talking about the crisis do kind of tip the scales a bit toward the aforementioned heavy handedness; and the final monologue by Brad Pitt’s character at the end is the final give away that the story you have been watching is not really the story, or at least the most important story, that the writers of this movie wanted to tell.
To be sure, this movie certainly had all the components, acting wise, to make for a great old school gangster movie. Consider the cast; you have Ray Liotta, of Goodfellas fame, James Gandolfini, and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack) both from the Sopranos. Looking pretty solid thus far. Now throw in some star power via Brad Pitt, and it looks like this could be a surefire can’t miss proposition. That said something definitely seemed to go amiss here.
Let’s start with the story, for lack of a better term. As said, the year is 2008, and times are tough all over as you may well recall, the world of organized crime being no exception. Markie Trattman runs a small time mob card game in New Orleans, a game he already robbed himself once, got away with, but then, by bragging about it, made himself a target for future robberies, with the assumption being, by the would be robbers, that the powers that be would naturally place the blame on him rather than they. Enter small time bookie, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato, and his two somewhat intellectually lacking young lackeys, who just happened to be the first couple of ‘wise guys‘ to think to pull of said heist. First you have Frankie, a genuine down on his luck type, who, under the right circumstances you could see leading a perfectly happy life in a non-criminal enterprise. Then you have his friend Russell, a complete degenerate heroin addict and all around screw up. If it’s true that you’re only as strong as the weakest link on your team, this team is all but doomed from the start.
After the robbery goes down, the Mob, whose boss or bosses we never meet directly… (there is no Godfather type character here, by design) bring in the services of an infamous enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to help sort this mess out, and help them figure out which and how many bullets to put in all the various guilty party’s heads. Cogan’s contact here is a milk toast lawyer played by Richard Jenkins, who is always effective in such roles. Everything is run by a committee, he tells Pitt’s character, which leads to a whole lot of foot dragging and an overall bumbling of the whole investigative process. The whole affair turns into a big bloody goofed up mess. Finally Cogan brings in outside help due to the number of people he must kill here outweighing his own abilities, or at least his gumption. Enter Mickey, (James Gandolfini) a professional hitman, who was apparently one of the best a few years ago, but who has fallen on hard times, and the only thing he winds up shooting the entire movie is located between his legs… “And what he doesn’t screw, he drinks…” says Pitt’s character to Jenkin’s character in one of their many frustrated exchanges while seated underneath a New Orleans bridge in Jenkin’s sedan.
There’s a lot of stylish violence in this movie, including slow motion bullets breaking glass and sending bits of skull and brain flying in a, and it’s disturbing to write this, beautiful ballet like display. There are no good guys here, and there’s no one character you really feel compelled to care about one way or another, especially to root for their success, or even, their survival, so when it is time for them to be sent up in a big array of gunfire, there’s not really much emotion to be felt.
Also as an aside, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to accept, in this day and age especially, that every single character in this movie, from the higher ups all the way down to your common lowlife scoundrels would always be listening to or watching a political news broadcast of some sort whenever they turn on the television or radio, instead of say, sports talk radio or music for instance.. That’s not to say that this was a bad movie at all, there is much to be enjoyed here in the acting and plenty of nice stand alone moments, but, I felt this film never really found its legs as a story. The tale of the card game robbery was too thinly constructed, and the characters were not flesh and blood creatures here, but simply one dimensional playthings the writers used to espouse their political viewpoints it seemed. It all got to be a bit much by the end. However realizing their predicament, as a consolation prize I suppose, for those not so into all that philosophical and political mumbo jumbo, you also get copious doses of Brad Pitt shooting people, and in slow motion no less.