The Monocle – “Killing Them Softly”

Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Released: November 30th, 2012
Theatre watched at: AMC Century 15, Los Angeles

There are times when you watch a trailer for a movie and go “Holy sh*t, that looks amazing–I’m watching that opening day.” You watch it, it sucks, and then all you can think about is: the $12  you wasted on the ticket, the $5 for a small popcorn, and the $3-$5 bucks for exceeding the parking validation time limit due to the 20mins of previews you did not account for. Other times you’ll watch a trailer and be like “Eh, it looks interesting and it’s got Brad Pitt in it–I guess I’ll give it a look if I have nothing else to do.” You watch it, it kicks ass, and then all you can think about is how they should have fired the trailer editor guy…and the $5 for a small popcorn and the $3-$5 bucks for exceeding the parking validation time limit.

Stylishly dark, smartly written, and dynamically acted, Killing Them Softly offers a fresh and enthralling crime ballad whose infectious grit is only topped by its careful attention to its well developed characters. This film really caught me by surprise. Based off the slightly confusing trailer, I assumed I was in for a convoluted, plot-driven mess of business politics and corrupt morals, but the movie isn’t very plot driven at all. Despite the fact many may find themselves a bit lost and bogged down narratively by the talkiness of the film, the plot is kept fairly simple and straightforward in order to focus on building its personality and tone. The story takes place during the 2008 presidential election season– Scott McNairy (Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) play two nobody, best friends, Frankie and Russell, respectively, who make a living doing the dirty work for local businesses by performing “jobs.” They are hired by a man named Squirrel to rob a mafia member named Markie Trattman, played by Ray Liotta, during one of his illegal gambling sessions. Frankie and Russell successfully perform the job and think they’re out of the woods until the the mafia hire hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who finds out who is behind the robbery and is thus sent to kill them.

Like I said earlier, this film goes heavy on the dialogue–much of it occurring while two people are simply sitting down across from each other. If talk doesn’t tickle your toes, you may want to stray away, but the savior of the dialogue is the way the script is written so crisply and with a sense of progression; every line has a purpose to keep the conversation moving to the next point of business, it’s quite engaging. The dialogue also serves as the main tool for character development, which is possibly the films greatest achievement. There are a handful of characters and yet they all get so much screen time and treatment that it’s difficult to decipher who is the main one, if there even is one. This is the kind of film that shows the extreme importance of each and every character you present to the audience, even if they’re used in simply two scenes, like James Gandolfini’s character Mickey, who Jackie asks to help him in killing one of the guys. Mickey is in exactly two scenes of the film and quite literally doesn’t do anything, but in that short amount of time we learn all about him and his connection to universe of the film that without it a bit of the richness of the story would be gone. Not to mention the go-to mafia actor Gandolfini does an excellent job making use of his time on screen by adding such emotional depth to the character just by the way he speaks, it’s magnetic.

Among the other cast members who do a great job are Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn (who also did an impressive take on “Rises'” John Daggett, you know, the one who thinks he has power over Bane?). Although their characters come with the territory of having to be played with a certain “pizazz” being drug junkies, they nail the modesty between their characters’ recklessness and inherent self-awareness. Brad Pitt, while not exactly his finest work, lives up to his usual awesomeness playing the restrained and mysterious Jackie Cogan. Jackie is easily the most intriguing character because we don’t quite learn all about him even after the final scene, and so his character slowly reveals more as the movie plays. Pitt does an excellent job being ambiguous with Jackie’s principals that it’s chilling; you never quite know when Jackie is being sentimental or is plain being a “no fuss or I’ll kill you” kind of hit man; there is a history and connection there that we never fully experience but it’s not a bad thing. The characters are so strong together in this film because it is either extremely hard to get over the fact that they’re all disgusting human beings or that you actually want them to be.

Another fantastic thing about the film the that you really don’t see much in brutal crime films, is its masterfully planned cinematography. Nearly every shot, either in the way that is placed or composed, takes advantage of the situation at hand, allowing the audience to really get different tastes of perspective. It’s playful and at the same time quite artistic really. There is a sequence in which Frankie and an extremely drugged up Russell are talking in a living room and the camera actually takes us in and out of Russell’s tripped-out perspective as the effects of the drugs really start to control his behavior and attention. It’s an odd choice of perspective and yet, it made the world that we’re in that much more alive and interesting.

Other than the film’s strengths, the slight political themes the film subtly brings up may either have people indifferent or frustrated. Throughout the movie, there are moments when you can hear over the radio or television George Bush speaking about the state of the United States economy as his term was coming to and end. The characters never address the themes directly, with the exception of the very end, and so the tactic may seem more like useless chatter simply there to expand the scope of the film, but I didn’t mind it much. In fact, if you can stick with it till the end, there is a huge pay off in the final monologue that Jackie delivers that is just insightful yet epic about exactly the kind of world we live in.

Killing Them Softly is a fantastic achievement in the crime genre in terms of the simplicity of its plot and the channeling of that energy into such visual technique as well as character build-up. It may not carry too much emotional weight, and for some it may not even seem like it really provides much of anything in terms of long lasting substance, but it’s undeniably a bleak and thrilling film.

Bow Tie Approved

Bow Tie Score - 4.0