Killing Them Softly finds gangster cleanup man, Brad Pitt, being called up by the local mafia to an illegal poker night supervised by Ray Liotta. Liotta has MO for robbing his own poker nights in the past and so naturally all the fingers point to him. Unbeknownst to everyone, the real culprits are a couple of ne’er do wells, (Scoot McNairy & Ben Mendholson) whose boss wants them to seize upon the opportunity to use Liotta’s reputation against him.
Andrew Dominic’s last two films dealt with the lifestyles of real criminals. The neon fury that was Chopper brought him and former stand-up comic, Eric Bana, to everybody’s attention with the tale of infamous Melbourne gangster, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. His follow-up, The Assassination of Jesse James, was the polar opposite to Chopper, bringing with it a melancholy atmosphere that stayed under your skin and demanded repeat viewings. With his third feature, Dominic tackles the fictional underworld, but projects it against the backdrop of the Bush administration, the Credit Crunchtm and Barack Obama’s induction.
Even though the film is based on a novel from the 70s, it’s not hard to see why Dominic chose to modernise the narrative and set it during this turbulent, financial time. This isn’t just gangsters shouting and hollering, it’s a financial drama. The actions taken by McNairy and Mendholson ripple through the underworld community. People demand to know what’s happened to their money. Liotta, a personification of the banking world, is called to answer for his previous sins. He’s got away with it before and that’s what seems to make people most upset. They want justice. If you can’t trust a criminal who can you trust? Pitt, like a PR man, is called in to ensure that business starts running smoothly again.
It’s an obvious allegory and, to some extent, it’s commendable that Dominic tries to pin the action down with this conceit. It’s just none too subtle in its approach. Characters manage to switch their radios on just as Bush et al give key political speeches, which just so happen to relate to the action on screen. In the final scene we’re treated to a two minute ‘America is a business’ monologue as Obama’s inauguration speech floats through the scene like some sort of musical accompaniment. In terms of subtlety Avatar, with its tale of evil corporations, was gentler in touch. We were reminded of Keenan Ivory Wayan’s sporadic cry of ‘Message!’ during key moments of Don’t be a Menace to South Central Whilst Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.
Maybe we’re being too flippant. If you sweep away the economic topsoil, you can find some nuggets amongst the mud. Dominic’s direction is straightforward enough, but he really pushes out the boat; a roadside assassination played in slow motion would make Dredd 3D weep. Tony Soprano is great fun to watch as a hitman who has just reached a turning point in his life. Unable to do much to benefit Pitt, due to a restriction set down by the law, he comforts himself with prostitutes and minibars. All charged to Pitt’s company account, of course. Mendholson is equally enjoyable as druggie antipodean, Russell, whose dream appears to just remain constantly high and dispel stories of mysoginism. In fact some of the best, albeit thoroughly depraved, lines come from him. Mendholson’s delivery never really giving the game away to whether he even understands what he’s saying is wrong.
Still, the fact of the matter is for us Killing Them Softly is not an interesting movie. It’s like having a pitbull being set upon you, for it to fall on it’s back wanting it’s tummy tickled. There’s so much going for it, it’s almost a shame.