Grade: 2 Stars
“Killing Them Softly” is another one of those films that makes you wish Quentin Tarantino had taken up hotel and restaurant management.
This underworld drama features more of those characters that Tarantino pretty much invented and too many others have copied: hit men and assorted lowlifes who are philosophical and talkative.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s mobsters, including Brad Pitt, are not as glib and obsessed with pop culture as Tarantino characters. Dominik borrows the morose worldview of “The Sopranos” so that his characters spend much of their time moaning about missed opportunities. Eliminate the many scenes of self-pitying, long-winded conversations, and “Softly” would be about 30 minutes long.
Two dimwitted hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), are hired to rob a mob-connected poker game. They succeed, and the underworld gambling economy slams to a halt. An out-of-town enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Pitt), is called in to find the guilty parties and eliminate them.
That’s about it as far as plot. Like Tarantino, Dominik isn’t so much concerned with story as with characters and dialogue, the impact of individual scenes and giving his cast plenty of room to act. Dominik then aims higher that Tarantino’s usual designs and tries to turn “Softly” into a parable on America’s economic and political systems.
The story is set in the fall of 2008 against the backdrop of the Barack Obama-John McCain presidential race and the economic meltdown that rocked their campaigns. Any time a character passes a television set, it will be tuned to then-President Bush selling his emergency plans to salvage the economy or, later on, to one of Obama’s campaign speeches. Except for a billboard glimpsed in the first scene, the movie ignores McCain.
Dominik’s America is grim. The story takes place in an unidentified city that is nothing but industrial rust and decay. If a lot isn’t empty, it is home to a building with boarded-up windows. Characters meet beneath the underpasses of highways that lead nowhere.
It doesn’t take much digging to get Dominik’s message. The mob-run poker games represent Wall Street. Richard Jenkins plays the unnamed lawyer in a Lexus who gives Pitt his orders. The lawyer complains that the gangsters who employ him suffer “a total corporate mentality.”
The idea of organized crime standing in for big business isn’t new. The original two “Godfather” movies did it earlier and did it better. Francis Ford Coppola lifted the veil of metaphor just once, in “The Godfather, Part II” when Hyman Roth says, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.”
The messages are so obvious in “Killing Me Softly” that Dominik all but dispenses with metaphor. Jackie puts it bluntly: “America’s not a country, it’s a business.”
Jackie is an inversion of the classic John Wayne hero. Instead of a symbol of hope, this loner is a symbol of despair. The only intelligent operator in the story, Jackie is a cynic who is disappointed in all he meets and all he sees. He turns even the American ideal of rugged individualism on its ear. “In America,” he says, “you’re on your own.”
Dominik previously directed Pitt in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and perhaps the commercial failure of that ambitious and ephemeral film convinced the filmmaker to put aside subtlety and make his points as plainly as possible. He resorts to that annoying device of placing songs on the soundtrack that explain the subtext of every scene.
For instance, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” plays when a hoodlum fatally deludes himself. Jackie arrives accompanied by the growling licks of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”
The supporting cast is a short list of gangster’s Who’s Who. Ray Liotta of “GoodFellas” plays an unlucky hood. When Jackie needs extra muscle, he recruits a friend played by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini. In a bit of irony, the character he is called in to eliminate is played by Vincent Curatola, Tony’s New York overlord Johnny Sack on “The Sopranos.”
These actors are all afforded fine character moments, because “Softly” is largely a performer’s piece. Gandolfini’s character ultimately adds nothing to the story but booze-driven soliloquies.
In the end, Obama wins (spoiler alert!), but Jackie is unimpressed. One president is as bad as the next, he says, and to prove it he disparages Thomas Jefferson.
The political angle distinguishes “Killing Them Softly” from thousands of other tales of underworld decay, but the bitter message is delivered so forcefully your impulse may be to duck and ignore it, even if there is some truth to it.