“Killing Them Softly” boasts three great performances. The first two exist in watching Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini exchange words as a pair of hit men—the former strong and confident and ready to get the job done, the latter about to drown in the deep end of a pool filled with hookers and booze.
These conversations provide some of the best tension-fueled dialogue and flawless delivery to manifest on screen this year. Pitt and Gandolfini, driving us to believe these characters really have known each other for a long time, are simply brilliant. Embodying violent sociopaths is a tough job, but these two actors seamlessly succeed.
The third great performance in “Killing Them Softly” is that of writer/director Andrew Dominik, adapting the novel by George C. Higgins into a cool, confident crime drama drenched with a bitter cynicism for capitalism that stays at the surface.
Dominik’s first two films—the shockingly violent character study “Chopper” and the slow yet understated “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”—revealed the director’s flair for style and storytelling, but “Killing Them Softly” is his best work yet.
The film moves at a rigorous pace that sneaks up on the audience, as if you are running on a treadmill and somebody keeps pushing the speed without you noticing. Conversations are long, drawn out, and masterfully paced so when the unexpected acts of violence and interesting plot turns occur, they feel refreshingly unanticipated.
What I love is that the minimalism never erupts into maximum chaos. The story keeps its hinges on, with Dominik not relying on a single big payoff to drive his film, but rather the small payoffs of every single scene. Try not to laugh at the hilarious conversations between two dumb guys (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) who rob a mob-enforced poker game and set off the film’s entire chain of events. It’s hard not to, much like it’s difficult to not find something to love within nearly every frame of “Killing Them Softly.”
The film’s only issue, and a minor one at that, seems to be its excess. With everything Dominik does right, he missteps occasionally with superfluous attempts at style—from slow motion to lighting—that feel jarring when compared within a movie that is primarily uncompromised starkness.
He also seems to lack subtlety in presenting the movie’s themes, an attack on capitalist mindset taking place right in the middle of the 2008 Presidential election. A lot of the dialogue covers these topics grandly, yet the film still feels the need to constantly have speeches by Bush and Obama playing on TVs in the background or over the soundtrack. It surely isn’t indirect or ideal, yet this approach could have proven far worse in another director’s hands.
Regardless, “Killing Them Softly” is a solid entertainment and a striking commentary blessed with a unique touch by an interesting filmmaker. With great performances and magnificent movement through its every scene, “Killing Them Softly” may not be one of the best American films of the year, but it is certainly one of the best films released this year about the country itself.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.