Smalltime crook Frankie (McNairy) and his junkie friend Russell (Mendelsohn) are hired to hold up a high-stakes card game run by local gangster Markie Trattman (Liotta). Markie is the obvious suspect, but the victims bring in outside enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to find the culprits.
The last time Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik worked together it resulted in the tremendous 2007 neo-Western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. So what would happen second time around, when they were to reunite for a latter-day gangster movie set in the shadow of the handover of America from President George W. Bush to Barack Obama in 2008?
After the rarefied Assassination, with its rich period detail and earthy palette, Killing Them Softly seems rather grey and even ordinary. It bypasses the last 20 years of post-Tarantino gangster movies to recall David Mamet’s 1975 play American Buffalo, itself a meditation on recession-era crime and punishment. The Mamet-like dialogue is the most telling example of what’s not quite right. Dominik has a cast of excellent American actors here, but most seem to be in service to a script that isn’t quite as sharp and perceptive as it thinks it is. Music (and sound itself) is a secondary problem. Throughout the film, TV sets blast out bulletins from rolling news channels, providing a crude running commentary on the larger world. The music choices (The Velvet Underground’s Heroin for a narcotic state) are equally clunky.
Surprisingly, then, Killing Them Softly does, just about, work. Key to this is yet another superb turn from Pitt, playing another of his indignant outsider antiheroes: movie-star cool, noir-thriller weary and yet driven by something recognisable and psychologically real. It’s Pitt who sells this movie as he navigates the mess he’s been brought into, a world where gangsters rob their own illegal card games just for a laugh, and where hired hitmen, once the samurai-like loners of bygone days, have become flabby, broken-down, unreliable losers.
Killing Them Softly doesn’t quite know what it’s about. There should be more to it, and though it achieves more in failing than most movies do in succeeding, it’s just sad to report that it says as little about the present, complex state of America as it does.
A good, efficient crime thriller, let down by clunky social commentary but lifted by excellent performances, including perhaps Brad Pitts recent best.