We’re coming up to the time where we have to ask ourselves “What was the best movie of the year?” From what I’ve seen, I suspect the best is yet to come. That’s unexpected. The list of films to come out in 2012 looked to me as though we’d finally arrived at a golden age. Last year was absolutely phenomenal for films that were technically excellent, emotionally mature, and entertaining. The same was promised for 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Prometheus (2012), Skyfall (2012), Lincoln (2012), The Great Gatsby (now 2013), and Gangster Squad (also pushed to 2013). Right now, Killing Them Softly (2012) is firmly in my top five films of 2012. That says more about the disappointment of the 2012 than the greatness of Brad Pitt.
Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) knocked over his own card game some time ago. That’s serious business because these games are for gangsters only and if anybody had found out, he’d be dead. Well, Markie had a few too many and lets it spill, but since the people who heard didn’t care and business was fine with the card games back up and all, they let it slide. Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) get’s a bright idea. Get some kids to knock over Trattman’s game and everyone will blame Trattman and there won’t be any risk to the real culprits. Plus, who’s crying over Trattman since this is just justice delayed. Squirrel gets Frankie (Scoot McNairy) in on it and Frankie gets Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a colorful Australian who makes his money stealing thoroughbred dogs. So the game gets knocked over. Organized crime, represented by this guy (Richard Jenkins), would usually use Dillon (Sam Shepard), but he’s sick, so they bring in Jackie (Brad Pitt) to take care of business. And it’s 2008, times are tough, so Jackie’s going to have to take recession prices.
There’s only two things to disparage with Killing Them Softly. First, director Andrew Dominik tries to use camera devices to convey what it is to be on heroin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of expressionism work ever. If it has worked, I haven’t seen it. That is, it was understated and subtle which is what it needs to be. Second, the analogy of the 2008 economic meltdown and this story of organized crime was rammed down our throats. It was great and they were so close to nailing it, but it was just too obvious. Not only obvious, but it overplayed its hand. It was too cynical for its own good. It scoffed at the election of Obama as a simple American lie which is too easy, too lazy for what is a serious point. In many ways, it’s the near misses, the almost perfect movies that hurt the most. But with all the not-even-close misses of 2012, this one was closer to gratifying. And I’ll tell you why.
The analogy, and it is an analogy, of organized crime and the Wall Street financial sector is pretty damn good. Dominik, who also wrote the script from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George Higgins, didn’t mold the story closely enough to a perfect analogy, which keeps it from being historically or rhetorically useful, but it’s close enough to nod knowingly and be very satisfied with yourself. When Jenkins talks about how he has to deal with the powers that be in organized crime and how they’re “a little squeamish” about killing people and it’s all done by committee, it was a laugh-out-loud moment. The dynamic between he and Pitt is hilarious.
I’m not big on unrelenting cynicism because I don’t think it’s accurate. So long as there isn’t a meteorite hurtling through space towards us, there’s always room to do better, but the message of the film is absolutely cynical. But that cynicism is welcome in 2012. The cynicism has been so half-assed lately. Lincoln was close, but was too adoring to be mature. Oh, and Flight (2012). It just gave up completely. Argo (2012) is the same story. But at least in Killing Them Softly, we’re really slumming it. We’ve got a message and we’re driving it home to hell with the Hollywood playbook. That kind of bravery is what I require above all. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t enjoy myself at a theater with anything but comedy or action because the half-hearted dramas are so compromised. Killing Them Softly doesn’t compromise. Bravo.
All the actors put in solid to great performances. The Jackie and Mickey (James Gandolfini) characters are great as is Jenkins’ character (who doesn’t have a proper name) with performances to match. Gandolfini does the best De Niro impression I’ve ever seen. Mendelsohn, though not a great character, is a scene stealer. McNairy as Scoot was mostly good. His acting was strong for most of the movie, but he had some long lines early on that were a little too Mamet. Overproduced. But Dominik doesn’t write that way all the way through, so don’t expect anything too stylized to function.
The writing with respect to characters was great for about four characters (and you could probably say five depending on taste). The Jackie character is the best. He personifies the ethos of Wall Street. The title comes from his definitive lines. Jackie can’t kill one of the guys because he knows him (and I paraphrase). And you can’t do that, they cry, they beg for mercy, they call out for their mothers, it’s embarrassing It’s too much emotional, I don’t like emotion. “I like to kill them softly, from a distance.” An emotional distance. By the numbers. Poignant, I call it.
I recommend you go to a matinee. Not because it isn’t worth the price, but because I feel like most dark comedy needs to be seen alone. Maybe it’s different with a large crowd, but with the small numbers in my theater, not everyone knew where to laugh. That’s awkward. Maybe you should see it at an art house. They should be snobby enough to know when to laugh (even if they don’t think it’s funny). Oh, and the violence is a pretty bloody.