Friday, November 30, 2012

Killing Them Softly

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta. Directed by Andrew Dominik (97 min.)

Killing Them Softly is perhaps the most laborious 97 minute film I have ever seen.  It is lifeless, indulgent, dark and moody, and lacking any real redeeming factors.  Sometimes a film like this tries to take some sort of metaphorical stance; these crime films try and reflect a certain time and place and era of American history.  Think Dog Day Afternoon, only not.  Instead of subtlety and light reference, Killing Them Softly beats its point into the ground with the most shoe-horned snippets of nonsense I can remember in a crime drama.

Ray Liotta plays Markie Trattman, the leader of an underground, mob-controlled poker game.  Two idiot thugs, Frankie and Russell, (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelson) are hired to knock off the game.  Because, you see, Markie already knocked off his own game a few months earlier and was busted (never mind he is still alive and running the card game), so if his game gets waxed again he will take the fall and these two morons will get off Scott free.  Yeah right.  In no time after the heist the mob is on the scene and they send in Jackie, a pragmatic, slick killer played by Brad Pitt.  True, this is a Brad Pitt vehicle, but his character operates like the shadow of his better roles.  He coasts through scenes like a caricature of cooler characters in his past.

Jackie tells his mob connect (Richard Jenkins) he needs another man for the job, so he brings Mickey (James Gandolfini) in to take care of the second goon.  Imagine Tony Soprano as a broke alcoholic whose family entirely abandoned him, and you have Mickey.  Mickey is clearly not in his right mind to go through with the job, so he is sent on his way and Jackie must take care of them both.  Which emphasizes the fact that Gandolfini's character serves no purpose. 

There is very little in the way of character development here.  We spend a great deal of time with Frankie and Russell, the two crooks, and they are as unlikeable and dense as any hoods in a movie like this.  I have no qualms about spending time with idiots and lowlifes, but they have to be either amusing or interesting.  The conversations these guys have - just a testament to the clumsiness and aimlessness of the script - are vulgar but not funny, and they go nowhere and last entirely too long.  All the conversations throughout the film feel unnecessary.  It's as if Jackie could have come in, found these two hoods, taken care of them, and left.  But if that were the case we wouldn't have been able to tie in politics.

The film apparently takes place in late 2008 in a post-Katrina New Orleans, although there is no mention of the city and no real reference to the Presidential race until the very end when our life force has been drained.  And yet, every TV set and radio is tuned in to C-SPAN or CNN.  I haven't frequented many underground poker games, but I don't think they would be watching a State of the Union address from George W. Bush.  I have been in a bar or two over the years and none of those TVs have been on C-SPAN.  I cannot imagine hired hitmen and thugs tune in to NPR while they're waiting in their car to beat up a gangster.  My point is, all of these weak references to political turmoil and the economic collapse of 2008 are so water thin, yet so driven into the ground, they grow into a massive distraction and serve no purpose to push the film forward.

Very little in Killing Them Softly pushes the film forward.  Sure, there are some cool camera shots and a lot of mood and atmosphere, and oh boy is there some slow motion.  But there is so much hopeless wandering in the screenplay that even the coolest camera work can't save it.  And goodness is there a lot of time spent sitting in cars, talking, about nothing in particular.  If this film were trimmed down to what it needed instead of having everything it wanted, there may not be a movie at all.  And would that be such a bad thing?