Killing Them Softly
Killing Them Softly (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
A man known as the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) hires two ex-convicts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to knock over a card game. The Squirrel thinks it is a smart move because there is a natural scapegoat: Given that its manager, Markie (Ray Liotta), has a history of admittedly robbing his own in the past (and allowed to get away with it), if it so happens to occur again, the mafia would surely look at him. With the money stolen combined with angry men who want the heads of those responsible, Jackie (Brad Pitt) is hired to figure out the identities of the brazen thieves and set things right.
“Killing Them Softly,” based on a novel by George V. Higgins, involves a lot of tough-looking men in suits sorting through their feelings so expectations that it is an action-filled thriller should be adjusted. It is a gangster film that adopts a more introspective approach but is nonetheless suspenseful in its own silent, slithery way.
Its individual scenes possess a central ember that crackles once in a while. An early scene involving the robbery of interest is executed with a high level of control. Almost every movement that Frankie and Russell make is accompanied by an equal sudden burst of energy by the camera. It is like dance and we are engaged by expecting that something very, very wrong will soon occur. We can imagine what the men that the sawed off shotguns are pointing to might be thinking. We pay close attention where their hands go as they continue to stare into the souls of the increasingly nervous duo.
Conversely, scenes without a gun in sight are equally compelling. The exchanges between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), an attaché for the mafia, are amusing at times because even though both have an understanding of the business, there is a soft tug-of-war in terms of what they want out of the situation. Although they do not share very many scenes, we get a real sense of their personalities. They are smart and they have their own way of getting exactly what they need to move forward. I thought that if this job had not been between them, they would have been very good friends.
The weakest points of the film are the moments of violence where not much is left for the imagination. The slow motion is most frustrating. I suppose it makes the killings and beatings look beautiful in a monstrous kind of way, but it decreases the urgency as well as tension of the situation. Take the character being shot down in a car. If it had happened so instantaneously to the point where we barely had time to absorb what had just transpired, we would have been shaken. Instead, we wait for the scene to unspool which feels like molasses being transferred from one jar another another. We get it; the character is dead due to the bullet holes through his head and body. The visuals beat us over the head with unnecessary details. Sometimes less is more.
Directed and based on the screenplay by Andrew Dominik, “Killing Them Softly” is anchored by believable performances. McNairy stands out especially during his scene with Pitt in a bar. There is a sad and quiet surrender in the way he plays Frankie as his character slowly realizes that there is a big possibility that the man to his right will not allow him to live for very long. The picture succeeds in communicating the conundrums in the minds of men about to do or did bad things. Like men who steal are asked to pay the price so do men who choose to pull the trigger.