Sometimes you just have to admire the guts of a movie. Whether it’s a bold message or a brave idea, sometimes the enjoyment you get out of a movie becomes secondary to the belief you have in its stance. Never has this been more true than with Killing Them Softly, a purposefully impervious picture designed solely to put its pessimistic point to as broad an audience as possible.
Whether you agree or disagree with writer/director Andrew Dominik and producer/star Brad Pitt’s bleaker than bleak view on America’s moral and economic collapse is beside the point. What I found most impressive about their film is that they had the conviction to release it in every theater across the country, knowing that a vast majority of the American public would loathe it.
Dominik gives exactly zero concessions to make his movie more favorable. From the jarring opening credit sequence with abrupt in and out audio cues, viewers are in for an unconventional experience. The story, in its most basic form, is almost absurdly simple. Two random “kids” (they look like they’re 35, but are repeatedly referred to as “kids”) hold up a poker game run by high-ranking gangsters. These gangsters hire a hit man to fix things.
Event-wise, that’s pretty much it. Not a whole lot happens in Killing Them Softly, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on. Dominik and Pitt are more interested in the allegory than the action. Set in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election, which was also just after the country’s financial collapse, Pitt’s passion project frames the actions of these underworld criminals against the grandiosity of America’s political landscape. There’s campaign chatter—speeches, news reports, analysis—playing in the background of almost every scene.
Some may feel it’s overbearing. It’s certainly not subtle, especially when Pitt’s character Jackie has his partner drive to a new meeting spot simply so we can listen to the radio as they drive. These allusions to the film’s less-than-hidden meaning are distracting, and they don’t always come together with the scene they overlay. Sometimes it feels like a hodgepodge of repeated ideas.
Most of the time, though, it works. At least for me. The overriding subtext came as a welcome extra layer on top of the beautifully muddled cinematography and fine performances underneath. All of these elements made the film feel packed with purpose rather than adrift in analogies. It also helped that the culmination of the political discussion arrived in one of film’s greatest oratory flourishes.
It’s focus, at least without the profanities, lands somewhere with “This is America, and in America, you’re on your own.” Many of the seemingly random, seemingly casual stories focus on loneliness. Scoot McNairy, who broke out in 2012 with Argo and Promised Land, plays Frankie, one of the robbers who’s as unlucky as he is anxious. Frankie tells a story in the disc’s nine minutes of deleted scenes about a woman he dated before he went to prison. It’s a heartbreaking tale told by a man who’s obviously experienced far too many such heartbreaks.
These stories haunt Killing Them Softly in every character who comes along. The other robber—a less likable, dirtier scoundrel than Frankie—is the most pathetic of the bunch, but also the most at ease with his predicament. Mickey (James Gandolfini), another hit man brought in to help, is lost in a drunken haze after too many years on the road away from his wife. Ray Liotta plays the plot’s catalyst Markie Trattman, a man everyone loves but no one’s averse to putting a boot to if it’s necessary for a couple bucks. Money is what matters to these people, not love.
Herein lies the beauty of Pitt’s production. It’s a movie lambasting America for its capitalistic nature while the film itself can’t make back its moderate budget. They had to know it. Nothing other than Pitt’s presence screams “moneymaker” about Killing Them Softly. It wasn’t a production mired with issues. Studio heads weren’t trying to make changes to increase profitability. This is the unaltered vision of the duo behind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That wasn’t exactly a box office bonanza either, but I imagine it will be more liked than the pair’s latest—Killing Them Softly earned the rare, blacklist label of an “F” CinemaScore from audiences on its soft opening weekend.
Dominik and Pitt are unfiltered, unrepentant, and I love them for it. Too many concessions are made to films designed for visceral impact and relevant criticism. It’s not always what you want to hear. As a foolish optimist I don’t believe we’re in the bottomless pit of despair this movie claims. Cynics can moan all they want. There’s still good out there, and there always will be.
I said you have to admire the guts of Killing Them Softly. I didn’t say you had to like it.
Sadly, not many will like the special features, either. The aforementioned deleted scenes are actually worthwhile if you’re a glutton for punishment—it’s not like they shift the tone away from the forlorn at all—but the only other bonus is a five-minute making-of. There are one or two juicy tidbits like when McNairy talks about how he and Pitt didn’t meet until they shot their first scene. Yet for being very much his passion project, Pitt is completely absent from the extras.