Killing Them Softly is an ambitious mashup of black market and stock market politics, wrapped in the guise of a straight-up crime movie. If that sounds like it’d be hard to pull off, it is. If you think it’s too much for one film, you’re right. Killing Them Softly executes its premise clumsily, with neither the main plot nor the overarching allegory ever really getting going convincingly.
The movie tells the story of how two moronic junkies, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), conspire with the elder Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rip off a gangster poker game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Normally, pissing off a bunch of mobsters would be suicide, but Amato has an angle — see, Markie recently confessed to his poker buddies that he once had his own game robbed. If the game gets robbed again, everyone’s going to blame Markie.
So they rob the game, make some money, and everyone blames Markie. But if there’s one thing stupid criminals need to learn, it’s that “loose lips sink ships.” One of the parties blabs about ripping off the game to an acquaintance who works for the wrong guy, and suddenly all three of them have contracts out on them. And the man hired to take care of them is Jackie (Brad Pitt), aided by Mickey (James Gandolfini).
Director Andrew Dominik works in his allegory by setting the film right at the heart of the financial collapse sometime in pre-election 2008. We are treated to scenes of characters doing something mundane — like finding a parking spot or walking through a train station — while a radio or TV plays a speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama or President George W. Bush. It’s through these speeches that the parallels between Wall Street and the mob are hammered home. The government had to restore confidence in the mortgage and financial markets in 2008, and the confidence issue is mainly psychological. The government took steps not just to fix systemic problems but to assuage troubled minds.
The mob economy works the same way, it seems. To restore confidence in the black market, as Pitt’s character says, someone’s “gotta go.”
As a crime tale, Killing Them Softly is just average. The mob elements just aren’t that fresh, and without the political undertones, the story just isn’t all that interesting. The one redeeming quality of the film is the acting. Pitt’s performance is absolutely riveting; the speech he gives at the end of the film is one of the most impactful scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. Gandolfini, though he has virtually no real role in the film beyond comic relief, nearly steals the few scenes he’s in. McNairy’s character is so pathetic you want to kill him yourself to silence his suffering.
The best way to describe Killing Them Softly might be as a political think piece wrapped in a mob story. This is not a bit of escapist fun. In the end, it’s a pretty good film that doesn’t quite execute its ambitions properly. It’s just not a game-changer.