Film review: Killing Them Softly

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 3:40am

Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini
Director: Andrew Dominik
Category: IIB


Movie genres all have inherent subtexts. Cowboy westerns explore the frontier of civil law. Musicals often reflect on the entertainment industry. Science fiction mirrors contemporary society. And Hollywood gangster films, well, they are studies of American capitalism.

With Brad Pitt hoisting a shotgun menacingly in the movie poster, Killing Them Softly has all the seedy milieu of the underworld, but writer and director Andrew Dominik is not really interested in a mafia drama.

Ostensibly a slice of low-life entree, the film follows two dumb thugs who decide to rob a mob gambling den. After the heist, a hitman (Pitt) is hired to eliminate the duo. That's the plot, but in reality the film is about another world where people make another kind of killing.

Set in the 2008 of subprime crisis and global financial meltdown, the film hints none too subtly at a broken-down America through its setting and characters. The robbers who agree to the most stupid of heists do so in a landscape of abandoned homes and closed factories. One thief is a filthy, sweaty junkie; the other is a nervous wreck who is just as unskilled and pitiful.

Surprisingly their score is a success, but the fallout for the gangland economy is ruinous. The profitable gaming venue is shut down, nobody is making any money and the goodfellas are desperate to restore confidence to the system.

It's the movie's cleverest bit - turning a mob poker game into a Wall Street allegory. Unfortunately, the film hits this analogy harder than an informant's beating. In nearly every scene, background television or a radio sound bite is blaring about the credit crunch or showing President George W. Bush talking about his decisive actions on the economy. If the inference is not obvious enough, Pitt's character blurts out disgustedly at one point, "this country is f----d, I'm telling you!"

But after the comparison is made, Dominik doesn't actually have a lot to say about it. To compensate, he pens some interesting dialogue and many profane words for his actors. It's a little bit David Mamet, a little bit Quentin Tarantino. In fact, it's a movie with more talk than action. And it's mostly small talk about planning logistics and low-life minutiae, but it rings empathetically with the false male ego and lost pride of a risk trader screwed over by his superiors.

As the mob fixer trying to clean up the mess, Mr Angelina Jolie is never going to pass for Everyman, but it's a lot of fun to watch him get agitated with Everyman headaches. Whether it's Fight Club, Se7en or Moneyball, Brad Pitt getting his hands dirty is a good thing. But most of the film's other roles are tough-guy losers we've seen before, played by actors who've done them previously. I mean, seriously, Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini as mobsters? That's original - not!

As a director, Dominik's form is all over the place. One scene of violence is brutal and visceral, with the loud crunch of knuckles slamming the bridge of a nose. Another is ridiculously stylised like a The Matrix meets The Sopranos drive-by shooting. Is that another metaphor? Forgetaboutit.

Killing Them Softly opens today