On the outside, "Killing Them Softly" has all of the components of a good, gritty crime thriller. A solid plot involving underground crime and armed robbery, a cast of genre alums and a big-name leading man carrying it all as a cynical professional hitman. Sounds like the perfect respite from all the glittering Oscar bait scrambling to hit theaters before the year's out, right?
Yeah, not so much. Those are the smoke and mirrors they use to pull you into this strangely placid drama, which occupies a dragging hour and a half with more talking, planning and fumbling societal commentary than good, dirty action.
"Killing" kicks off with, and is driven by, an armed robbery at a mob card game perpetrated by two loser cons (Ben Mendelsohn and "Argo"'s Scoot McNairy). It's supposedly foolproof, since the same thing was pulled off once before by the game's organizer, Markie (Ray Liotta), and the suspicion is already primed to fall on him again. It does – but not for long. In an attempt to restore order to the balance in the underground crime "economy," Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to hunt down the bumbling duo.
Again, it sounds like the basis for a legitimately good movie. What the succinct premise doesn't account for, however, is the seemingly endless bouts of aforementioned nothingness that completely gum up the works. For a bunch of "men of action," these supposedly uncivilized cons are a real bunch of chatty hens. If there's one upside to that aspect, though, it's that these kind of machismo crime movies are a last vestige of legitimately accepted inappropriateness, and it comes across loud and clear (and abundantly) in the dialogue.
"Killing" is inundated with anecdotes that aren't just a little blue, they're on the other end of the freakin' color wheel. Crazy hookups, stories from the inside, ridiculous past heists – it's all almost prerequisite for getting anywhere in this movie. It's the perfect complement to the give-no-f*ck attitude of the cruder players (Mendelsohn's Russell, especially), which would be great if it didn't come off as almost a parody. They're so misogynist and so over-sharey about their past exploits that their desensitization to it all is almost contagious.
Because of all the gum-flapping, it takes forever to get to the first shakedown/beat-up, and even longer to an actual kill. On top of that, the total body count is minimal (I won't give away the official number as it could count as a spoiler, but calling it disappointing is fair). Yes, for a movie about a contract killer with a specific job, that kind of targeted death is appropriate, but it's still a bit of a letdown – I mean, who doesn't go to one of these movies expecting things to go awry somewhere?
The deliberate pace is certainly a hindrance, but it's merely the vehicle for the screenplay's convoluted story. Perhaps the most confusing part of "Killing" is the way it juggles its focus. It starts with the two cons, Russell and Frankie, plotting and carrying out their robbery. The audience latches onto the duo to carry them through the story, but once contract killer Jackie shows up (which takes so much longer than any of the movie's promotional material would have you believe) they all but disappear, stranding viewers with new characters and new moving parts right when they're finally getting invested.
And, wound up in between it all is constant background coverage of political and economic commentary. It runs through all of the movie as distracting, juxtaposed noise, finally getting tied in at the very end (in an unnecessarily excessive, "hammer-it-home" kind of way). It's a puzzling inclusion that only adds to the mixed-message genre confusion of "Killing" as a whole, so I guess in that way it worked.
I'm sure to some "Killing Them Softly" will come off as brilliant. And, to be fair, if you go in with appropriate expectations it's likely to provoke a better reception. But, there are still a lot of fundamental problems that, like rust on a car, tarnish what good there is in what is ultimately less of a crime thriller and more of a crime drama. For most viewers concerned, Jackie's method of "killing them softly" will really hit home – if you consider "them" to mean the audience.
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