In the tradition of underworld crime dramas such as The Godfather, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is a tense and gripping tale of gangland politics, yet reaches for more with sharp allegory and moments of biting satirical jabs at the bureaucratic mishandling of the recent financial crisis.
Featuring an impressive ensemble of solid performances, Killing Them Softly weaves a complex narrative across various levels of an urban crime syndicate, from Richard Jenkins’ shady middle-man, something of a liaison with the ‘legitimate’ world, to the bottom-feeding duo of Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, whose heist of an illegal poker room launches the plot.
Brad Pitt is pitched as the film’s lead, and he delivers typically solid if unremarkable work as contract hitman Jackie Cogan, yet truthfully he is just one piece of Dominik’s larger puzzle. Killing Them Softly‘s scope is ambitious, and for the most part successful, particularly in the darkly hilarious interactions between Pitt and Jenkins scattered across the film. The frustrations of committee decision making are a big theme of the film, and surprisingly the infuriating situations Cogan is faced with seem almost like they’ve dropped out of a Mike Judge film.
However, as an unfortunate consequence of the multiple story threads, not everything works. James Gandolfini appears as a colleague of Cogan, and while his story is interesting, it has little impact on the wider plot and as such could have been trimmed or jettisoned altogether. On the opposite end of the spectrum, not enough time is devoted to Mendelsohn’s stunning work as the grimy, burned-out junkie Russell. His arc is wrapped up a little too neatly, and without much explanation, yet Mendelsohn gives one of the stand-out performances of the year, and announces himself as an early Oscar season contender.
Killing Them Softly is certainly a good film, but I have an odd suspicion that in a months time I’m not really going to remember much about it, aside from Mendelsohn perhaps. There are some terrific moments, and Dominik has a good eye but seems a little hesitant to push himself too much. The infusion of political critique is smart if occasionally too obvious, and, much like last year’s Drive, the unexpected flashes of violence are effective in their brutality. It may not have the legs to go down as a classic, but Killing Them Softly does have enough going for it to merit a recommendation.