With Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use. 97 minutes.
Local viewers will notice something odd about KILLING THEM SOFTLY. While this gangster film contains references to Somerville, Wollaston and an oddly mispronounced Haverhill (it’s “HAY-v’r'ill,” you Hollyweirdos), it was obviously shot outside of Massachusetts. In fact, it’s an adaptation of a novel by the late George V. Higgins (best remembered for The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and clearly is set in the Boston area, even if it was shot in Louisiana.
That oddity aside, this is a dark film about lowlife criminals and how they pay the price for their stupid decisions. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny Sack on “The Sopranos”) has hired two dimwitted thugs (Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) to rob the illegal poker operation of Markie (Ray Liotta). His logic is impeccable: Markie once robbed his own game and so if it happens again he will be suspect number one. This should allow Johnny and his henchman to walk away with the money.
Enter Jackie (Brad Pitt), a professional killer who is asked to clean up the mess caused by the robbery by Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mob lawyer who wants things settled quickly and neatly. However Jackie doesn’t want to confront Johnny, whom he knows, so they bring in Mickey (James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano) to take him out. Unfortunately, Mickey is more interested in booze and hookers than in doing his job.
The plot isn’t much more complicated than that. Criminals betray and/or kill each other, and the goal is to get back to the status quo, where someone breaking the law doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at another criminal coming after him. Where the film gets a bit too cute is in moving the action to the fall of 2008. There are numerous clips of then President Bush and candidate Obama talking about the financial crisis, and if the analogy hasn’t sunk in by the film’s end, there’s a climactic speech by Pitt’s character that makes it explicit. The notion that Wall Street’s shenanigans, which almost led to another Great Depression, are no different than thugs shooting each other is a bit heavy-handed even if, like this reviewer, your politics leans to the left.
That aside, this is a nifty modern gangster film that brings to mind “Snatch” (which had Brad Pitt in the cast) and other crime films by Guy Ritchie. The characters are quirky with much better dialogue than you would guess their real life counterparts are capable of, and there’s enough in the way of shootings and beatings that no will complain the film is too “talky.” In the end it doesn’t succeed as the profound statement about American capitalism that writer/director Andrew Dominik apparently intended, but it is an entertaining melodrama about how there’s no honor among thieves.
In the weeks ahead we’re going to be seeing a lot of Oscar bait – lengthy films clearly intended to impress critics and Academy voters. The week after Thanksgiving is usual the lull before the storm. “Killing Them Softly” is a better than expected entry for this week, perfect for those who prefer down-and-dirty crime films to overstuffed costumed productions.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.