Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is a grittily realistic thug movie featuring the biggest collection of low life scumbags probably ever assembled. It’s the real world version of “The Expendables” … with some outstanding performances involved. This is a movie that’s won a lot of plaudits, but certainly won’t be to everybody’s taste, as it’s so violent and the people so universally unattractive.
Ray Liotta is Markie Trattman, the resident patsy and punch bag who runs an illegal gambling den that’s knocked over by two down and out low rent hired thieves – Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelshon – tremendous as a drugged out, greasy looser. You can almost smell his unwashed, stringy hair. To have had your gambling den knocked off once is bad enough, especially when you did it the first time, and were foolish enough to boast about it. But when those two knock it off again, it spells, well, death. Just so that it – robbing yourself – doesn’t set a precedent.
And this is where the rest of the thugs come in. Driver (Richard Jenkins) is the businessman – the spokesman for the consortium that has hired, initially Jacky Cogan (Brad Pitt) and then Mickey (James Gandolfini). He grumbles and complains about the indecisiveness of the people who want the hit – they want Trattman injured, but not too much and then killed, but they don’t like murder. It’s 2008; the markets have just crashed and these are hard times all around. The (overly insistent) audio track cues us in on Bush explaining the crash and Obama, still a senator, promising change and a bright future. For these guys, it just means that the price of a hit has to be lowered (Mickey is offered $15,000 – “not bad for three days’ work” – but has to fly economy).
Cogan is the expert brought in to do the job. Brad plays him as a low-keyed, almost invisible presence who has emotionally removed himself from the distastefulness of the job (hence the title – he just wants to kill them quickly and softly without having them suffer or, as he notes, “beg and cry and call for their mothers”).
Gandolfini plays killer number two – Mickey – as a rattier, disheveled version of Tony Soprano. He’s a fat, chipped toothed alcoholic, tortured by his wife’s serial infidelities and trying to get his own back by banging every whore he can rent.
So this is the cast of characters (pretty much all men, but for a passing hooker) that come together in some unnamed town (New Orleans) to rob, shoot up heroine and eventually die nasty bloody deaths.
Dominik channels Tarantino in the engaging meaninglessness of the dialog and keeps the camera so nastily close to the sweaty, grubby characters that you feel you need a bath when you leave the cinema. I can see why the movie has been so well received. It’s a refreshing dash of reality in a genre that inevitably glamorizes the male bonding machismo of hired killers. And his paralleling of the failing market economy with this underground economy is, though too overt, quite clever.
The movie also poses an interesting question – do you have to feel some, or any empathy for a character in a movie to ‘like’ the movie? For “Killing Them Softly” offers moviegoers a line up of entirely credible, but thoroughly repellant characters…so repellant that in the end you simply just don’t care.
And this I thought was its essential failing. For despite Dominik’s craft and seriousness and the stellar acting of everyone in the cast, the movie though intellectually interesting never engages. You just never get invested emotionally in anyone. And I for one expect more of my movies than this academic exercise in grubby reality