Two men sit in a crummy coffee shop. They stand. The more stylish, put-together man leaves a dollar tip and turns for the door. The other man, less stylish, less put-together, tries to thieve the dollar. The stylish, put-together man notices and tells him to put it back. Reluctantly, the other man does. This is a striking visual portrait telling us Times Are Tight, Take What Can You Get Wherever You Can Possibly Get It.
But the scene does not conclude there. Instead the camera glides up to find a TV on the wall showing President George W. Bush giving a deluded speech about the bristling state of the American economy. This, of course, is straight from The Damon Lindelof Playbook – why let a visual, why let the very essence of the scene, speak for itself when you can ensure the audience understands the point by dropping a symbolic anvil on its head?
Ostensibly Killing Me Softly is about a high stakes card game robbery and the hitman hired to track the robbers down. But it’s really about……AMERICA!!!!!! It is not, however, about America like, say, The Crucible was really about McCarthyism. It is about America like Farenheit 9/11 was about the Bush Presidency.
Adapted by Andrew Dominik, who also directed, from the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly updates the timeframe to ‘round about now and finds two petulant lowlifes, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), hired to knock over a card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta) specifically because years earlier Markie had the (idiotic) cojones to knock over his own card game and brag about it. Thus, the finger will immediately be pointed at him.
It is. A nameless driver (Richard Jenkins) consults with Jackie (Brad Pitt), the aforementioned stylish, put-together hitman, who sends a few men to rough up Markie before word of mouth informs him that, in fact, it was the two unknown “kids”, Frankie and Russell, who were really responsible. And since the man who put them up to the robbery – Amato (Vincent Curatola) – knows Jackie, he determines it best to fly his old pal, Mickey (James Gandolfini), in from NYC to do the job for him.
It has the potential for the tight focus and small scope of one of those callous noir classics of the 40′s, movies about a few desperate characters that subtly cracked open to reveal something true if wrenching about the human psyche. Instead, Dominik comes down with a severe case of auteur-ism, routinely refusing to let the story speak for itself as he gussies up the soundtrack with old-time tunes that don’t fit the mood, offers slow motion bullets that soften the blow of all the nihilism as opposed to offering insightful juxtaposition and, worst of all, as mentioned, continually plastering speeches from Bush and Obama on top of action in a distinct attempt to do all the thinking for the audience. Perhaps this is a commentary by Dominik – a New Zealand-born Australian – on what he perceives as the obviousness of America, but the device itself is so obvious and relentless that it too often undercuts the actual story. Dominik clearly has something to say but will not allow it to reveal itself through the film’s narrative.
It’s a shame because when Killing Them Softly settles down and goes silent on the soundtrack and just listens to its characters it can be revealing, oddly poignant and extremely dry. It is best illustrated in the relationship between Jackie and Mickey that is cast over a couple talky scenes that are not at all what you might expect from this sort of movie. Gandolfini captures a man beaten down by and worn out with and pissed off at life. Pitt, meanwhile, off-kilter, evokes someone confused by the new world order, where even hit men must adhere to upper management and everyone surrounding him is a nattering idiot with no hope for the future.
The scrunched-up faces Pitt makes throughout, the disbelief at the inanity of these clueless cohorts, is funny and paints him as being fed-up. His expression throughout says the same thing I was thinking: “Get me out of here.”