Killing Them Softly, the new mob movie starring Brad Pitt, opened in 7th place this weekend with what most are calling a disastrous haul of just $7 million, causing many (like the Los Angeles Times' Steven Zeitchik) to ponder what could've caused such a spectacular failure. To be honest, I'm a bit surprised by the surprise, since a look at Pitt's films shows him to be a guy more attracted to interesting, challenging roles than box office glory, occasionally doing something more crowd-pleasing if it means hanging out with friends (George Clooney) and other cool people (Quentin Tarantino).
But Killing Them Softly clearly wasn't what audiences were expecting, and they gave the film a rare "F" Cinemascore rating when they bothered to show up at all. I assume this has to do with the ad blitz that portrays Killing Them Softly as a fast-paced gangster shoot-'em-up. However, I hadn't seen those ads before I saw Killing Them Softly, so my expectations were quite open after being somewhat lowered due to the film's lousy title and what I considered the fanciful notion that pretty boy Brad Pitt could play a convincing mobster.
And that turned out to be a good thing, because I ended up really enjoying Killing Them Softly for what it is -- a gritty, funny, topical, mob story about a crisis of confidence in the low-level criminal underworld that serves as an allegory for the financial meltdown caused by the banking industry. It's a dialogue- and character-driven movie aimed at adults who like political metaphors, but with a marketing campaign aimed at action-hungry young men, it seems to have scared off its target audience and disappointed the one it got. Watch my ReThink Review of Killing Them Softly below (transcript following).
Between The Sopranos, The Godfather 1 & 2, the movies of Martin Scorcese, and all their countless imitators, it's easy to think that there's nothing new to be done in the organized crime genre. But with its small scale, gritty tone, terrific cast, and political and economic overtones, Killing Them Softly, despite its lame title, manages to be something pretty special, as well as proof that age and raising a platoon of kids has put enough miles on Brad Pitt to make him a believable mob hitman.
Killing Them Softly takes place in New Orleans as the banking meltdown begins and the 2008 presidential election heats up. A small-time wannabe gangster named Johnny (played by Vincent Curatola) hires two barely-reliable petty crooks (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-run card game, believing that they'll get away with it or the guy who runs the game, Markie (played by Ray Liotta), will get blamed.
But a small-timer like Amato couldn't know that robbing this game would send a tremor through the city's criminal underworld that's already been hobbled by the economy and hurricane Katrina. If mobsters can't feel safe gambling their money, all the card games across New Orleans may shut down, crippling the criminal economy. So a mysterious kingpin represented by a nebbish middle-manager type (played by Richard Jenkins) hires a hitman named Jackie (played by Brad Pitt) to restore confidence in the system by roughing up or whacking everyone involved with the robbery, a job for which Jackie must get backup from a New York hitman (played by James Gandolfini).
If that sounds a lot like a gangster microcosm of the financial meltdown, it's supposed to, and director Andrew Dominik makes sure you know it by having clips of speeches by George W. Bush, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Barack Obama playing throughout the film on TVs and radios, which some might see as heavy-handed, but I thought was great. In both the film and in the meltdown, a disaster at one institution highlights a structural weakness that reveals that no one's money is safe, spooking investors and threatening the health of the entire system. In that sense, Markie's game getting robbed is like the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, both of which require drastic action and a lot of pain to restore confidence and get business moving again, with Jackie as the cold-blooded hand of intervention to keep a corrupt but vital system humming.
But this allegory is just one of the great things about Killing Them Softly. Another is the film's focus on dialogue and the personalities, relationships, and dark humor revealed as the characters hammer out the nuts and bolts of their criminal activities, where beatings and murder are just a cost of doing business. Despite what the ads might have you think, Killing Them Softly is mostly made up of fairly long, often funny conversations that push the story forward while giving you insights on the characters and their work.
All of the acting is excellent, highlighting the class differences between the different tiers of gangsters, with McNairy and Mendelsohn doing a particularly good job as knuckleheads who don't even qualify for the intern program. It's fun seeing Sopranos alumni Gandolfini and Curatola back playing mobsters, and Pitt, who definitely doesn't look Italian, uses it to his advantage as an outsider brought in to restore fiscal order and a perverse sanity to a tumultuous time.
Killing Them Softly does a wonderful job of creating a realistic, lived-in world in the post-Katrina wreckage of New Orleans, without a lot of frills or even much music. And while Killing Them Softly is no fast-paced bulletfest, when the violence comes, it's scary, gory, and brutal, as it should be. Director Andrew Dominik said that crime dramas are essentially about capitalism functioning at its most base form. By addressing the financial crisis through a tough, gritty crime movie full of great actors and humor, Dominik has made the most topical and timely mob movie in recent memory, reminding us that in America's economy, there's no mercy and no prisoners, whether you had it coming or not.