So it turns out being a mob hitman is actually pretty banal. A lot of down time. Same goes for stick up artists. And getaway drivers too. Though I think that last group may have been obvious. Yes, if Killing Them Softly has taught me anything, it’s that crime mostly involves spending long stretches of time sitting in a car or hanging out on a street corner, just musing over the little idiosyncrasies of life. It’s a lot like a normal job… you know, until you start having to kill people.
Killing Them Softly may just be one of the most pedestrian mob movies of all time. The entire story revolves around the robbery of a single mob protected card game – its planning, execution and inevitable fallout. Nothing too Earth shattering. And the players are generally just the low level thugs who wouldn’t even be given a name in another movie. Nevertheless, though you would think that would hinder the film’s ability to delve into larger issues, thematically it’s quite ambitious. That is to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Part of this is attributable to Killing Them Softly’s rather distinct style. Writer/director Andrew Dominik uses long dialogue heavy scenes to tell most of the story. The action is often sparse and short lived, taking place only after long periods of deliberation. There’s a noticeable emphasis on the impersonal nature of the business of crime. You get the sense that all of these characters would be great friends if there weren’t money involved.
In general, it all works pretty well. The banter between characters is fairly entertaining, if at times a little too dissolute. Still, it does a fantastic job of providing context for some of these individuals, fleshing them out in a way that makes their motives at least somewhat understandable, though perhaps not always sympathetic. Either way, their musings allow Dominik the time to touch on some big ticket issues like the effects of extreme poverty, addiction, and the ways the criminal justice system fails to prevent those from reoffending. At least I think that’s what he was doing – the conversation drifted into a lot of different areas.
There was also a fairly prominent comparison being made to the events in the film and the 2008 financial crisis, the period in which Killing Them Softly is set. Televisions and radios in the backgrounds of scenes are often tuned to speeches made by Bush and Obama during that time. While at any given moment the relevance to the story at hand can be rather hit or miss, it all comes together in an ending that was memorable enough for me to feel like it was all worth it. And I must admit, setting the movie in the recent past gives it a rather cool retrospective tone.
All said though, there were times in Killing Them Softly where it was hard to find someone to root for. It’s not just that the film features a rather seedy cast of characters (and a rather cynical tone), but it never really takes the time to establish a true protagonist. Brad Pitt’s character, Jackie Cogan – who is the main character of the book on which the movie is based – doesn’t show up until about 20 minutes into the movie and even then it’s not uncommon for him to spend long stretches off screen. If there’s a lead it’s him – he’s the most complex of the bunch and gives the movie its title – but it’s not always obvious.
Regardless, by not placing too much stock into any one character Killing Them Softly just adds greater emphasis to its thematic undertones. The movie is almost always interesting, brilliantly shot, and while I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone – the depravity of some of these characters can be a little disconcerting – it’s a worthy detour for fans of the crime genre. Just don’t expect an action movie, because for the most part you won’t get it.