Killing Them Softly is perhaps the most unpleasant film of 2012.
Taking place in 2008, Killing Them Softly tells the story of how a poker game got robbed in New Orleans and how that robbery led to a lot of people getting killed. The poker game is run by Markie (Ray Liotta), a likable and well-meaning gangster who made a big mistake in the past. A few years previously, Markie arranged for one of his poker games to get robbed. Though everyone knew that Markie was guilty, nobody could prove it and Markie continued to claim his innocence even while being tortured by a legendary hitman named Dillon (Sam Shepard). So, years later, three small-time crooks figure that if they rob another one of Markie’s games, the Mafia will automatically blame Markie and hold him responsible.
Unfortunately, one of the crooks (played by Ben Mendelsohn, who was so good in Animal Kingdom) is also a heroin addict and something of an idiot. He talks to the wrong people and soon the Mafia knows who was actually responsible. Since Dillon is in the hospital, his protegé Jackie (Brad Pitt) is sent down to New Orleans to take care of the situation. As Jackie explains to the mob’s representative (played by Richard Jenkins who gives a very Richard Jenkinsy performance here), not only do the three criminals have to die but Markie has to die as well. It’s all strictly business.
Speaking of business, this entire story plays out against the backdrop of the 2008 elections. For some reason, all of these sleazy criminals seem to be obsessed with watching CNN. As a result, nearly every scene features either George W. Bush or Barack Obama speaking in the background. At one point, Jackie says, “This is America,” just in case you couldn’t figure out that the film’s plot is supposed to be allegorical.
Killing Them Softly is an odd film, a well-made film that never quite convinces us that its story needs to be told. Brad Pitt is miscast as Jackie and James Gandolfini has a truly annoying cameo as an alcoholic killer but otherwise, the film is perfectly cast. Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are believable as two of the stupidest criminals to ever appear on-screen and Ray Liotta is likable and sympathetic as the tragic Markie. Director Andrew Dominik makes good use of the New Orleans locations and the film has a few genuinely suspenseful moments. That said, the film’s graphic and brutal violence quickly goes from being shocking to just being tedious.
If for no other reason, I did appreciate the fact that Killing Them Softly was brave enough to lump Barack Obama in with every other politician whose words are used to punctuate the film’s action. Here in America, filmmakers tend to be very hypocritical when it comes to criticizing the government, going to almost ridiculous lengths to excuse Obama for following the same policies that they previously spent eight years attacking George W. Bush for instituting. Instead of attempting to promote any partisan position, Killing Them Softly argues that the business of America will remains the same regardless of who is in charge. Normally, that would seem to be a pretty obvious point but, in today’s cult-like political climate, it’s practically revolutionary.
Critics have been mixed on Killing Them Softly but, judging on both the film’s anemic box office and a lot of the comments that have been left online, audiences seem to absolutely loathe this film. This isn’t particularly surprising because Killing Them Softly, with its constant emphasis on everything that’s ugly and dirty about life, seems to be a film that was specifically made to annoy audiences. Even the film’s strengths ultimately serve to alienate the viewer. I suspect that was Andrew Dominik’s ultimate goal and, on that count, he definitely succeeded.
Ultimately, I guess that’s why I ended up developing a strange sort of respect for Killing Them Softly, even though I found it impossible to enjoy the film itself and I would rather visit my gynecologist than ever have to sit through it again. This is a film that stays true to itself, even at the risk of becoming unwatchable as a result.