Killing Them Softly
R1 - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (22nd June 2013).
The Film

If you ever need further proof that Cinemascore ratings are useful only to studio moguls who think a higher grade equals bigger box office, just look at the pitiful grade of “F” that audiences awarded Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” (2012). The stylish, unconventional neo-noir crime drama (adjective overload, I know, but it fits) opened to weak box office – despite the presence of star Brad Pitt and a “fresh” rating of 75% at Rotten Tomatoes. So, why did audiences totally overlook what was one of 2012’s best? It likely had a lot to do with the aforementioned “unconventional” story, which took a focused look at mob business through the lens of an economic downturn. Not exactly the kind of material known to thrill the masses; this was really more an art film that wound up being pushed as something it wasn’t. Don’t let the bad box office and terrible marketing fool you, though, because writer & director Dominik has managed to craft a grounded, realistic take on mob politics that is a near-perfect exercise in showcasing the inner working of crime. His only true fault was not trusting his viewers could understand the crisis at play here – namely, mob card games not running like they should, thereby affecting the local crime economy – so he consistently inserts heavy-handed political speeches to drive the point home. That error aside, it’s always satisfying when a director can pull off a modern noir without producing weak imitation.

Local mob wannabe Joey “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) has a plan to rip off a local mob card game that can’t lose, so he hires a former associate, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and his junkie buddy, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to do the job. The game is run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a friend of the mob who years earlier had robbed his own card game and gotten away with it since everyone liked him so much. So, Squirrel figures if it ever gets robbed again Markie will be blamed no matter what, and they can all walk away with no one the wiser. Problem is, once they pull the job off Russell starts blabbing about it to a fellow mob enforcer, too wasted to even comprehend who he’s confessing to. The mob wants this all cleaned up, now, so they send in enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to tie up all the loose ends and get the local games going again.

I understand how Andrew Dominik saw this story as a parallel to the current political climate; the lack of regulation in Washington mirroring the lack of regulation in this criminal community. When the games aren’t running, people aren’t making any money. Unlike in real life, however, in this world those who are seen to be holding up the proceedings are handled with extreme prejudice. In this case, that’s Markie who, regardless of the fact he didn’t do it, needs to be held accountable because the perception on the street is that he did do it. And the games won’t run like normal until people feel confident he isn’t around to screw with them again. It’s a novel approach to the underworld. Dominik populates his film with characters that feel lived-in; you can instantly determine their relative worth in the pecking order. The varying levels of authority operate much in the same way our own government officials do. Intelligent viewers might have been able to pick up on Dominik’s intentions and draw their own conclusions as to what the film is about, but he makes the unfortunate decision to constantly bombard us with political rhetoric covering the exact issues he’s attempting to figuratively display on screen. And what’s worse is that every impassioned speech we’re subjected to is being given by either then-Senator Barack Obama, or former President George W. Bush, and Dominik seems to make it pretty clear whose side he’s on. To be fair, both aren’t presented in the best light but he really seems to take Obama to task on his “one community” ideals that put everyone on a level playing field. And he’s right to do so. Still, subtext done subtly is one thing, but bashing your audience over the head with it is a distraction that does nothing but make intentions painfully clear.

Solid cast we got here, too. Nobody really steals the show; it’s just a great ensemble that works well. Pitt is cool and collected as the hitman who likes to – as the title suggests, “kill them softly, from a distance”. Amusingly, and confusingly, every single person he does kill meets their end up close and messily. So, you know, there goes the title meaning anything. While his character doesn’t employ much range, it’s some of the best work he’s done in recent years. The late James Gandolfini comes close to stealing the film as Mickey, a former top hitman who’s now a womanizing drunk unable to fulfill his contracts. Gandolfini has such an intimidating presence, even all these years after “The Sopranos” (1999-2007) ended. The man is like a force of nature when he’s brewing on screen, a drunken hurricane. Both McNairy and Mendelsohn excel are coming off like two scuzzy low life con men who will do anything to make a buck. You can practically smell the two of them through the screen. Mendelsohn in particular is just so… f*cked up. He really nails it. And then we’ve also got Richard Jenkins, who adds a nice splash of gravitas to any production lucky enough to grab him.

Dominik imbues the picture with a lot of stylish flourishes that set it apart, too. We get these brief, stoic glimpses into the mind of our criminals before they hit the card game that offered good insight into how much a mind must be racing before attempting such a daring heist. It’s only a few brief seconds here and there, but the expressions tell a lot. Most impressive are the shots when Frankie and Russell are getting loaded. It’s easy for a film to show a junkie nodding off and have the audience imagine how difficult it would be to communicate with someone in that state. Dominik takes it further by using the camera lens and putting us in the junkie mind, with lots of out of focus shots, black screens, and fade outs that provide some of the most realistic interpretations of what it’s probably like to be high on heroin. Great artistic touches like that are what can make a small crime film like this so unique and different from the pack. Mainstream audiences might have ignored it, but I can see “Killing Them Softly” enjoying a nice life on home video as people start to become hip to this stylish take on relevant material.

Video

The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image is constrained to the limits of DVD and, therefore, looks about as good as the old format can muster. The film has an intentionally bleak atmosphere, as such there isn’t very strong color representation – everything looks dialed down a bit. Black levels appear faded more often than not. Wide shots are almost fully devoid of finer details, or even less-than-fine details. A few scenes look washed out, which, again, may just be a stylistic decision.

Audio

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track is actually fairly impressive by DVD standards. There is great separation, with lots of effects pouring from every corner of the room. During the card game heist exit, sound plays a crucial role in upping the tension in addition to filling in the field with gutters dripping rainwater and cars roaring off in the distance. The LFE response is solid, bass levels sound rich and deep when required. For a DVD, this features some damn good fidelity that is likely right in line with the theatrical experience. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

This is the result of when a movie bombs and the studio decides to kick it while it’s down by releasing a practically barebones edition on home video. This movie needed more.

A handful of deleted scenes (16x9) are included:

- "Janice” runs for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, Frankie recounts the story of an ex-girlfriend.
- “The Doctor” runs for 2 minutes and 34 seconds, Jackie tells Driver about a heist gone wrong.
- “The Doctor Part 2” runs for 2 minutes and 23 seconds, Jackie tells the story to Frankie this time.
- “Not Working Tonight, Right?” runs for 2 minutes and 38 seconds, more great footage with Mickey and Jackie drinking together.

“The Making of Killing Them Softly” is a featurette (16x9) that runs for 5 minutes and 17 seconds. Just about everyone gets interviewed here for this EPK on the film. Writer/director Andrew Dominik explains how he sees the film as a story of economic crisis, which can affect even the criminal underworld.

There are bonus trailers (16x9) included for the following:

- “Silver Linings Playbook” runs for 2 minutes and 27 seconds.
- “The Master” runs for 1 minute and 12 seconds.
- “Broken City” runs for 2 minutes and 14 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc DVD comes housed in a standard black amaray case.

Overall

Unjustly maligned during its release, “Killing Them Softly” is a great throwback to the noir films of the past while maintaining a 70's visual aesthetic set in a modern world. Dominik is a little over zealous with his message of unregulated economics, but the film is so stylish and grounded that his unique take on common material works splendidly.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: A- Extras: C+ Overall: B-

 


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