Excess Hollywood: ‘Killing Them Softly’ packs a hard but slow punch

“Killing Them Softly” isn’t exactly the kind of film from which you’d expect a lesson in economics. On the surface, it’s an artsy crime flick about a couple of amateur goons (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who hold up a high-stakes card game and the resulting backlash as mafia enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) fiercely goes about setting the situation straight.

But those who read between the lines will realize that the poker games, the gangsters and the contract killings represent things like Wall Street, American workers and the bailout. This is much more than a brutal, character-driven mob drama — it’s a full-on allegory for the 2008 financial crisis.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik isn’t exactly subtle about letting viewers know this. Character conversations about how the economic situation has affected them all and Jackie’s powerful speech proclaiming, “America isn’t a country. It’s a business,” smartly personify this point. But the real news reports, presidential speeches and Senate arguments about this topic that sporadically play in the background on TVs and radios throughout make it feel kind of heavy-handed.

The opening credits sequence is ballsy enough to jarringly and immediately defy any expectations of a mainstream crime picture while setting the stage for an angry ride. The dark sense of humor simmering throughout the movie becomes readily apparent in the beginning, and then the actual robbery tips the tone towards a more serious, meaner arena.

Dialogue-heavy scenes showcasing the impressive breadth of talent from an excellent ensemble cast are interspersed with occasional outbursts of extremely bloody violence. This results in somewhat passive pacing, particularly during an admittedly intriguing but loitering subplot about an out-of-town hitman (an irascible James Gandolfini) who can’t bring himself away from his drinking and hookers to get the job done.

An insanely slow-motion car crash execution midway through stands out as the breathtaking, gorgeous sequence that won’t soon be forgotten, and the bleak, suspenseful third act sure hits with a wallop. As Jackie tracks down the heist perpetrator, he gives him a difficult opportunity to redeem himself.

Pitt can play an aggressive, intimidating tough guy better than most actors, and watching him calmly chew up his opponents is quite satisfying. McNairy really builds a likable screen presence, and with both this and his “Argo” role, he should be on his way to leading man soon. Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins give solid performances as usual, but Mendelsohn — better known for playing formidable criminals — steals all his scenes as a drugged-out, mouthy bum.

The thought-provoking allegory doesn’t completely resonate and come together until after the film is over, but what keeps this movie in your head is then figuring out all the layered meaning. While Dominik is pretty overbearing in the delivery of his message, to his credit, he packs it with a slow-boiling punch.

 

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  • Updated Nov. 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm
  • Edited by Sarah McCabe