Killing Them Softly

This is a film that is far more intellectually stimulating than visually exciting. Good deeds or bad deeds, they all get punished if the price is right.

Rated: Can be seen at home or on a plane, as it is a film that won’t appeal to everyone.

Killing Them SoftlySometimes, like it or not, deserving films fade slowly into the sunset while cinematic nonsense like Taken 2 succeed for no definable reason. That comes with the territory, and every filmmaker knows it. Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and Director/Writer Andrew Dominik are about to suffer such undeserved disappointment in the recently released Killing Them Softly.

A film noir out of the old Hollywood school, it has a provocative script that transcends the violent action displayed. Sure, there are a handful of ugly executions, but this movie holds legitimate interest because of consistent, sardonic conversations between all of the characters from beginning to end.

For those of you familiar with the fundamental principle behind the meaning of the term film noir, you know that it follows interesting characters who eventually are led to their doom. As an example, think of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), where insurance rep Fred MacMurray was lured into a murder scheme by Barbara Stanwyk, a nasty blonde in a tight pink sweater.

Then there is the poignant drama, A Place in the Sun (1951), where an eminently likeable Montgomery Clift ends up on death row because he can’t escape responsibility for the death of his blue collar lover (Shelley Winters) as he pursues the positively gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor. Finally, most of you will remember Lawrence Kasden’s Body Heat (1991), where another hot blonde, Kathleen Turner, convinces her love-struck lawyer (William Hurt) to kill her husband. You know, just know, that Hurt is not going to escape Turner’s purrs that hide her claws.

Killing Them Softly is the same type of film. While Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer hired to hunt down and kill two woeful oafs who robbed a high stakes poker game, he doesn’t appear during the first third of the film. Most of this time is spent following two of the most hopeless crooks to appear on the screen, Frankie and Russell. Played by Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, they are little more than fumbling buffoons who the robbery victims remember only because both were extraordinarily smelly.

They are also quite funny at times, and earn your attention. McNary’s Frankie just wants to earn a few bucks to help him over the hump, while Mendelsohn’s Russell, an Australian, hopes to finance a string of dog thefts so that he can sell them in Florida and use the money to turn a quick buck in the heroin trade.

Along with Jacki Weaver’s compassionate performance as Robert DeNiro’s wife in the knockout hit Silver Linings Playbook, Mr. Mendelsohn’s appearance here is a reminder why all of you should hunt down and see Animal Kingdom (2010). Ms. Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a monstrous mother, (“You’ve done a bad thing, sweetie”) who babies her brood of psychotic sons, one of them played by Mr. Mendelsohn. The bevy of disturbed characters who are brought to life are very similar to those on continual display here in Killing Them Softly.

While some you may find the beginning a tad slow, the fuse is literally ignited with the appearance of Pitt. He is hired by a polite mob honcho played by the extraordinary Richard Jenkins, and their extended conversations, largely taking place in a vehicle, are as spirited as they are engaging.

Two other actors who make their mark are James Gandolfini as Mickey and Ray Liotta as Markie Trattman. Gandolfini’s Mickey is a hitman hired by Pitt to kill the ringleader of the robbery since he personally knows him. But Gandolfini has his own issues, not the least of which is the fact that he has violated conditions of a bond by traveling to do the hit for Pitt, and further the fact that he consumes numerous martinis while pursuing spirited prostitutes.

Liotta’s character ran the card game, and he faces a likely demise given the fact that he participated in a similar robbery years earlier. The vicious beating he suffers at the hands of other lowly employees of Pitt is exceeded only by the time he sat at the dinner table missing the top half of his head in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Pitt keeps his character rather low key, always having time for a cigarette over Jenkins’ continual objections. He has a scruffy beard and slick-backed hair, and is continually amused by the stupidity of his intended victims. He has no problem killing, but would prefer to do it at a distance, as he finds that most victims have a tendency to whine and beg before their eventual execution.

Additionally, please note that the script has a clever edge to it, given the fact that everything takes place during this country’s financial crisis of 2008. As a result, you repeatedly see soon-to-be President Obama as well as then President Bush promoting policies so that our country could find its economic footing. The film itself reflects that time period, and Pitt continually finds fault with Mr. Obama’s theme that we are not a nation of red states or blue states, but of one state.

While I don’t dare reveal when this scene occurs, the theme of the film is captured by an exchange between Jenkins and Pitt in a bar. As Jenkins tries to pay Pitt less than he demands, Pitt explodes. He forcefully rejects the notion that the United States is a country at all, considering it simply a business where every person’s job is simply to do what is needed to survive. He then looks at Jenkins and simply demands, “Pay me!”

I’d pay him.