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The idea of film being used as a medium for political themes and socio-economic commentary is nothing new, even recently with movies such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Margin Call aiming to tackle the 2008 financial crisis. But few movies have been as unsubtle as Killing Them Softly.
Set to the backdrop of the 2008 election, the criminal underworld of an American city has been hit by its own financial crisis after a mob poker game is robbed by two criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). With no trades or money being moved, a mob manager (Richard Jenkins) brings in a fixer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), to solve the situation. But none of his actions brings back confidence, whether right or wrong.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik admirably uses a gangster story as a metaphor for the financial crisis, but the handling was atrocious. Dominik has no faith in his audience to draw these connections, and even worse, come away with its own conclusions; he opts to spoon-feed us the cliff notes as we watch.
This is most evident with the constant use of speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama made at time, enforcing the parallels Dominik wanted to make. There are constant references to terminology used at the time, particularly the theme of bringing back confidence to the world, the theme that public perspective is more important than actual actions and we are reminded that the gangster world’s situation is the same as the financial world’s one. This forceful approach does not allow us to see a natural story.
Killing Them Softly is a very dialogue-driven film that breaks the old cinematic maxim of “show, don’t tell.” We are told that the mob has turned corporate and that there is a crisis, but we do not get to see it. It would have been more interesting to see mob bosses arguing and coming up with theories and seeing that gangsters were unwilling to make any deals in the midst of the crisis. Killing Them Softly ends up rather dull as a result.
There are some moments that show what Dominik is capable of: the robbery scene was filled with tension and things felt like they would actually kick off. Whenever violence was used in general, it was incredibly grim and brutal. There is a highly stylized moment when Cogan commits his first assassination, completely played out in slow motion — a brilliant little sequence. The film hits hardest in these scenes.
The big saving grace of Killing Them Softly is the acting. There is a great cast with Pitt, Jenkins and James Gandolfini being the biggest draws. They were committed actors doing the best they could, elevating the dry material provided with excellent delivery and chemistry. Pitt and McNairy played the most likeable (and I use that term loosely) characters, and were the most well-drawn and conflicted characters in the movie. McNairy was the most human, reacting naturally to his situation, and Pitt is able to be cold-hearted and professional when he acts upon his deadly task.
Killing Them Softly is a movie that feels its political parallels are enough of a mask for it to be seen as an intelligential masterpiece, but it feels too demeaning to have everything spelled out like that, which was made worse given the story played second fiddle to these political parallels. There was potential for a great film if there was a good re-write, but it ends up being one of biggest disappointments of 2012.