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Movie review: Characters drive 'Killing Them Softly'

Posted: April 17, 2013 - 2:45pm  |  Updated: April 18, 2013 - 8:33am

“Killing Them Softly”

Paln B Entertainment

1 hour, 37 minutes

 

This was a slow week at the movies, with not much new, aside from “42,” the Jackie Robinson biopic that looks cool, but isn’t exactly wowing the critics. Wow or not, I wasn’t able to make it to the theater, so instead I decided to watch a new indie gangster flick out on DVD this week, “Killing Them Softly,” starring Brad Pitt. Pitt, even more so than Tom Cruise, is a pretty boy who continually manages to defy expectations, a trend not bucked with this small, tough film.

“Killing” opens with a trio of low-rent hoods planning a major score. A bit of history. Markie Trattman, played in affable mode by Ray Liotta, runs an underground card game that is protected by the mob. One day Markie, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, gets the idea to have his own card game robbed, a scheme that miraculously works.

After everything cools down and the robbery becomes the stuff of legend, Markie drunkenly reveals that he was behind it, a transgression the bosses reluctantly forgive because the games make money and, to be honest, everyone likes Markie. So, back to our hoods and their score. The thinking is that the same card game can be hit again, and everyone will assume it was Markie, again. Markie will take the heat, and the three stooges will get off scott-free.

It sounds easy, but as you might imagine in a movie like this, things are never as simple as they seem. Enter Jackie, the mob enforcer charged with closing the book on the Trattman robbery. Jackie, played excellently by Pitt, is kind of a cross between an insurance adjustor and a detective, uncovering clues, assessing blame, and applying harsh penalties.

“Killing” is written and directed by Andrew Dominik, whose last partnership with Pitt produced “The Assassination of Jesse James,” a brilliant, beautifully shot film. “Jesse James” is slow moving and elegaic, however, where “Killing” is brief and to the point. This is not an action movie, but neither is it particularly contemplative or meandering.

I’ve heard “Killing” described as brutal, and that’s not far off. Brutal, however, not in a vicious or gory way, though there is violence and some blood, but brutal more in a pragmatic sense. It’s the way practicality can be particularly merciless. Pitt plays Jackie not as someone who enjoys killing, but rather as a person for whom killing is an unpleasant necessity. There are several beautifully written scenes of dialogue between Jackie and the great character actor Richard Jenkins, who plays a lawyer who acts as the go between. At one point, after the guilty parties have been identified, and it’s time for our hero to go to work, Jackie balks at having to whack someone that knows him personally.

“You ever kill somebody?” he asks the lawyer, who shakes his head wearily in reply.

“It’s very emotional, killing. Touchy-feely. There’s a lot of crying, begging. I don’t like emotions, don’t want to deal with them. That’s why I like to kill them softly, from a distance. No emotions.”

It’s an interesting concept, that this violent act should be committed with the least amount of fuss possible. Of course, though a basically decent guy, Jackie is most concerned that there be as little hassle to himself as possible, showing this character’s major disconnect from humanity. Pitt plays the role perfectly.

Also very good are Liotta, in his small role as Trattman, and James Gandolfini as fellow hitman who is well past his prime. The scenes between he and Jackie are sad and somehow tender, in an odd way. Notable, as well, are Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the two unfortunate hired thieves. McNairy was recently great in “Argo,” and Mendelsohn is an Australian actor recognizable from quite a few small roles in big movies, such as this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” but most memorable in the excellent indie from down under, “Animal Kingdom.”

“Killing Them Softly” is an excellent modern entry into the crime genre, notable for being a concise and tightly-constructed little character drama. I was highly impressed, though I do feel Dominik was trying hard to overlay a political message that may have been a little heavy-handed. The film takes place in 2008, and while voice-overs of candidate Obama lecturing about change and the class struggle don’t detract from the story particularly, I don’t think it adds anything either. These characters exist with or without a looming economic crisis, which is what makes their stories so timeless.

Grade: A

“Killing Them Softly” is rated R for bloody violence, sexual references, and pervasive language.

 

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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