(out of 5)
An action film that subverts expectations by focusing on the inability to commit actions is a tempting prospect; when it comes from the filmmaker who inverted the myth of violent heroes, as Andrew Dominik did in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford by pointing out that a legendary gunman was actually a mentally deranged murderer, the premise seems that much more enticing. To see a genre being challenged in such an inane and inconsequential manner, as Killing Them Softly actually does, is disappointing enough to make you reach for the nearest Michael Bay film and simply indulge in common expectations instead. The background for this one is a backdoor card game that is heisted twice, once by the guy who actually runs it (Ray Liotta), and a second time by two petty thieves (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) who are put up to the job by an aspiring big shot who thinks it’s an easy getaway: if the barely-seen crime boss (played in a throwaway cameo by Sam Shepard) knows that Liotta did it the first time, he’ll assume he did the second one too. Things aren’t so smooth, however, so Brad Pitt is brought in to hunt the three perpetrators down and is forced to take matters into his own hands when the hit man he hires (James Gandolfini) turns out to be a dud. Dominik once again presents visceral, unapologetic violence that seeks to examine the very nature and effect of aggressive behavior by exploiting it to the maximum (often in slow-motion scenes that are ineffectual and, ironically, make it look very glamorous). When these men aren’t able to actually act like tough guys (such as Gandolfini’s interminable scenes of empty, unintelligent dialogue), they stain their souls by committing bad deeds against their better judgment. In theory this all sounds like character development being richly mined by a skilled filmmaker, but every personality fails to connect here, either with other characters or with the plot itself, and there are few scenes that don’t go about five minutes longer than they should. Pitt is particularly weak, awkward in delivery and far too anodyne a physical presence to really manifest the kind of threat-in-waiting that the character seems to be hinting at; his closing speech, which is meant to fall like a sledgehammer on an audience being implicated for its own collusion in the kind of vigilante justice that American movies celebrate, wants to turn him into Sam Elliott but couldn’t have been less threatening if it was delivered by Mia Farrow. The standout is McNairy, a fiery and charismatic presence who makes you forget every other actor in the film. His scene at a bar facing down Pitt, who can barely keep up with him, is the film’s best moment, with the director wisely focusing much of the attention on the actor’s endlessly alert facial expressions. If the film leads to a successful career for what is obviously a superb character actor, then and only then was it worth the effort.
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins
Cinematography by Greig Fraser
Music by Rachel Fox
Production Design by Patricia Norris
Costume Design by Patricia Norris