Killing Them Softly: Return of the macho-poetic

A heavy-hitting cast, tense atmosphere and sharp dialogue make this underworld thriller just a few stops short of greatness.

After pushing the limits of film-title length with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, writer/director Andrew Dominik returns with Killing Them Softly. Set in New Orleans (although unusually, and smartly, the location is barely referred to, with only a smattering of FEMA graffiti to directly identify it), it’s an underworld drama with a loose plot held together by sharp dialogue and performances from a heavy-hitting cast.

A couple of petty criminals, Frankie (Scoot McNairy, who you might recognize from Argo or the 2010 mumblecore sci-fi flick Monsters) and Australian junkie Russell (a magnificently shambolic Ben Mendelson), are hired by a mobster (Vincent Curatola, beloved to Sopranos fans as Johnny Sac) in a half-baked scheme to rob a high-stakes card game and blame it on the game’s host (Ray Liotta).

The heist goes off fine, but when the scheme inevitably falls apart, Richard Jenkins as a shady businessman (or political operative — the film pleasingly keeps certain details vague to up the intrigue) hires a badass hitman (Brad Pitt) to clean up the mess. Pitt has his own subcontractor (James Gandolfini), but he too turns out to have some personal issues.

With this kind of cast, a dialogue-heavy film is bound to be enjoyable, and indeed the macho-poetics flow like wine, somewhere between the nihilistic verse of Tarantino and the Weighty Meaningful Drama of Mamet. Although Pitt and Gandolfini always have trouble shedding their respective actorly baggage, they do their damnedest, and the supporting cast is even stronger. Liotta’s broken-down mobster is an eerie parallel to his post-Goodfellas career, and McNairy and Mendelson, who appear onscreen as much as the bigger names, are just awesome.

Set during the 2008 election, the film includes many snippets of Obama speeches that seem to hint towards a political subtext (until the last scene, when Dominik throws subtlety out the window and decides to just spell everything out). Speaking of politics, at the risk of sounding PC, it was odd to watch a film set in the Chocolate City with an all-white cast — aside from Obama, the only black person to appear onscreen is literally in the background, out of focus, and gets shot dead without any reaction or commentary. (Update Dec. 14: our critic Anna Phelan points out that there is, in fact, one black character, also the only woman with a speaking role: a nameless prostitute (Linara Washington). I think my point still stands, but I cop to the error. -MF)

Dominik also makes a couple of clichéd music choices that undermine the film’s stylistic cool. Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” on Pitt’s first appearance? Pretty borderline. The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” while Russell is shooting up? Almost unforgivable.

All the same, it’s a tense thriller with a lot of atmosphere. The opening scene is almost avant-garde, and an assassination scene shot in extreme slow motion is one of the most memorable scenes of the year. It’s well worth watching — if I pick on its flaws, it’s only because it’s very good, a few stops short of being great. ■

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