‘Killing’ Is too Soft Spoken

Set against a backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” portrays criminals dealing money, beating and killing people, all in a dreary-looking environment where the sun never seems to shine. Based on George V. Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Trade,” the film has some fine moments, yet is undone by a frustratingly unbalanced and unfulfilling narrative, which at times is unsure of its goal.

Two-bit crooks and junkies Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob-protected poker game, with the assumption that suspicion will fall on the game’s operator Markie (Ray Liotta), who had masterminded a similar robbery of another game years before. This leads to the collapse of the local crime economy, as poker games in the area are subsequently shut down due to the fear of being robbed. Obviously and understandably displeased, the mob hires hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) to find out who is responsible and to restore confidence and order.

“Killing Them Softly” starts quite confidently, but then falters as it seesaws between two storylines. Jackie doesn’t show up until about 20 to 30 minutes into the film, during which Frankie and Russell goof around with one another before carrying out the robbery. The two thugs share an affable chemistry that is fun to witness, and at first, it seems as though they are the main characters to whom we connect with. However, once Jackie comes into the picture, the film shifts and begins to follow him instead as he puts things right. Some time later, the narrative goes back to Frankie and Russell. Then repeat. Though the story does eventually balance itself out, it comes a little too late into the film.

While this fluctuating narrative isn’t heavy-handed, it does seem somewhat uncomfortable every time it shifts, mainly because the two storylines ultimately feel incomplete. Frankie and Russell provide an emotional foundation for us, yet the twists and turns they encounter are unconvincing, almost seeming like a copout. On the other hand, Jackie is a flat character and is hardly ever developed. At one point, the character of Mickey (a sour James Gandolfini), a hitman turned drunken slob, is brought in to give Jackie another dimension, but this feels like an excuse to just have Gandolfini in the film.

What’s commendable here is how the movie does its best to disassociate itself from standard crime drama fare. The robbery sequence alone is nerve-wracking and full of tension, as Dominik excludes music and instead opts for a television droning in the background and shuffles from the characters to provide sound. The cinematography too goes for originality through some nifty camera techniques and image effects.

“Killing Them Softly” is certainly an intriguingly crafted and watchable film, but it cries out for more content that would have made it a stronger picture. Further developments to the narrative are in sore need, and it doesn’t help that the film is surprisingly short at 97 minutes. The film, like the mob it depicts, feels cut back. Unlike the mob, it shouldn’t be.

Final Rating: 2.5/5