Your humble writer’s parents used to employ the phrase, “the height of laziness,” whenever they perceived sloppy execution of household tasks, farm chores, or homework. If either of them had taken up criticism as a vocation, they would’ve applied that phrase to Killing Them Softly, a Brad Pitt vehicle abounding with artistic laziness.
A film noir of sorts, Killing Them Softly attempts an analogy between the bad actors responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and criminals of every rank and social standing in a film containing no moral center – a point that would’ve been interesting to entertain were it not for the simplistic fashion of playing period TV and radio broadcasts in the background and strategically placing Obama v. McCain campaign billboards in key scenes.
What’s left is a mush that leaves the viewer wondering which criminal strata represents which specific accessory to what amounted to a pretty nasty recession. The end result is a false equation of criminal behavior with capitalism lacking any context in which to identify the analogous culprits.
Instead, viewers are treated to bumbling, low-life junkies; suit-and-tie gangsters; gold chain-wearing gamblers; prostitutes and the alcoholic, self-loathing misogynists who hire them; and the hit men who’ll whack all of the above for the special recession take-it-or-leave-it rate of $10,000.
These criminals, viewers are led to surmise, ain’t got nuthin’ on dem der vulture capitalists.
“America is a business,” cynically states Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, but the audience is left with nothing much to go on but the character’s say-so. The filmmakers’ attempted point is lost in this mad jumble of a movie simply because that point isn’t fully integrated into the plot.
What’s left is a Tarantino-esque criminal omnibus with witty, foul-mouthed gunsels who exhibit no honor toward their own criminal kind, depicted by actors who have all made considerable bank by playing the same characters again and again.
Yes, it’s true James Cagney, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Edward G Robinson did much the same thing back in the old studio-contract days – but this critic wishes the director of Killing Them Softly had exerted a bit more initiative before casting James Gandolfini as a slight variation of the same character he portrayed so winningly onThe Sopranos. Worse, the director allows Gandolfini to utter the same catchphrase, “Whatcha gonna do,” he employed on the HBO series, before pushing the character, New York Mickey, into the ether, rendering his screen appearance pointless in the movie’s overall scheme.
The same can be said for Vincent Curatola - The Sopranos‘ Johnny “Sacks” Sacramoni – who portrays Johnny “The Squirrel” Amato much like the character he played on The Sopranos - albeit without Sacks’ expensive suits and wife with an eating disorder. Likewise, Ray Liotta reprises his Goodfellas‘ role as the type of guy who’ll orchestrate the robbery of a high-stakes poker game he runs. Been there, done that, Ray.
This leads us to the de rigueur use and sale of narcotics in Killing Me Softly, which has been done to death in the 20 years since Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Worse, director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik cops out on the nodding-out-on-smack scene by musically punctuating it with the opening bars of – you guessed it—The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Boy, that Dominik guy sure is clever.
The remainder of the film’s soundtrack is equally lazy. If Dominik aims for unearned coolness by adding The Velvet Underground and Nico to the musical mix, he doubles-down with “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash, who has recently become a too-easy imprimatur of coolness for gritty dramas; Petula Clark’s version of the old Thomas Crown Affair chestnut “Windmills of Your Mind,” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters,” which was used far more effectively in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
In an interview, Dominik attempts to make the case Killing Them Softly is a comedy. While it may generate a few laughs, they are few and far between in the two screenings your writer witnessed. Filmgoers with a hankering for criminal humor would be better advised to Netflix Brother Orchid, Get Shorty or, of course, Pulp Fiction.
Softly is a lazy pastiche of political and economic allegory, casting, soundtrack selections, screenwriting, and humor.