'Killing Them Softly' bludgeons you beautifully
Posted November 29, 2012
As Wall Street melts down, so does the small-time gangster empire in Killing Them Softly.
The story is played against the backdrop of the 2008 economic collapse and opens with President Obama's voiceover message of hope eerily contrasted by a lone guy walking through a desolate trash-strewn corner of an anonymous American city.
A clever thriller (*** out of four; rated R; opening Friday nationwide) with a particularly meaty performance by Brad Pitt, it posits a simple theory, as expressed by Pitt's menacing Mob enforcer, Jackie: "America's not a country. It's just a business."
He expounds further in a key meeting with Richard Jenkins, in a wonderfully nuanced role as a Mob lawyer who doesn't get his hands dirty. The pair meet at a bar after a string of murders following a heist at a Mob-controlled poker game. Obama's soaring pledge to reclaim the American dream fills the silence of the bar.
Pitt's Jackie, suddenly a political scholar, dismisses "the myth created by Thomas Jefferson" and scoffs at the notion of an American collective. "This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community. Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own."
It's a cynical philosophy that underlies this particularly seamy swath of society. Pitt may be the rare thug who discourses on political philosophy (among other things) as the film offers a critique of American capitalism.
But other elements make a stronger impression than its disenfranchised nihilist sentiments. There's an indelible cast of sleazeballs who populate this dark tale, written and directed by Andrew Dominik and based on George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade. James Gandolfini plays a procrastinating hitman (with unavoidable traces of Tony Soprano), Ray Liotta is a hapless poker player and Ben Mendelsohn a drug-addled grifter.
Languorous to the point of rambling, the story of double-crossing and vengeance is darkly funny, graphically violent and gorgeously shot.
Occasionally, it seems like an exercise in cinematography, specifically, how to make bullets tearing into flesh look artful through extreme slow-motion camerawork.
In one of the film's most grisly scenes, shot with an unremittingly shaky camera, rain pours down while a man endures a frenetic pummeling. The 1930s tune Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries is the incongruous soundtrack.
The squeamish be warned: It gets worse. A gold-colored bullet moves at an inexorable pace, shattering car windows into kaleidoscopic shards and piercing a man's skull with vivid blood splatters worthy of Jackson Pollock.
Sometimes, a la Quentin Tarantino, the movie feels like a collection of overheard conversations, such as the one that explains the film's title. Sociopathic Jackie determines to keep a distance from his victims: "They get touchy-feely…They cry, they plead, they beg ... They call for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill them softly. From a distance. Not close enough for feelings.''
There's nothing touchy-feely about Killing Them Softly, a stylish thriller worth seeing -- despite its relentless violence -- for its sharp dialogue, mesmerizing photography and gritty performances.
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