“Killing Them Softly” is a film that tries in earnest to say something poignant about the cutthroat nature of American business by comparing it to organized crime. It is sometimes successful, but mostly degrades into a celebration of violence. I get it.
The characters in this film all know each other, they all compete with each other, and they all are willing to eliminate each other despite positive personal feelings. American business pretends to be about relationships as well, up until the point vulture capitalism takes over. To me, it seems like the same point could have been made without brutal, slow-motion beatings and overly bloody gun violence. But I suppose the filmmakers wanted to show the violence in a realistic way, making it as horrible as possible so that the viewer can compare it to the very real financial carnage that surrounding the financial crisis. I don’t know that it’s necessary.
The film is a mob movie. There are various players, various bosses, lots of money. It takes place in a post-Katrina New Orleans, a wasteland of parking lots and industrial squalor. Abandoned houses and lots make up the background, an obvious reference to the consequences of financial irresponsibility for the nation as a whole. Johnny Amatto (Vincent Curatola) plans to knock over the mob-protected card game of Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a wise guy who once knocked over his own card game and got away with it. Johnny assumes that everyone will suspect Markie and he’ll get away scot free. He hires two dumb kids to do it and, of course, the mob finds out and hires an enforcer (Brad Pitt) to kill the offenders and restore order. The goal is to get the money flowing again and set the criminal economy right.
I’d wager that if I wanted to look closely, I could find one-to-one comparisons between the players in the financial crisis and the characters in this film. The financial industry itself is the mob, I guess; Frannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the dumb guys that knock over the card game; Lehman Brothers are the scapegoats and therefore Markie. If you wanted to, you could probably spend a few hours discussing the film with interested friends, looking for exact references. But I don’t especially want to spend my time that way.
I was taken out of the story by the amount of financial news the mobsters listened to—criminals aren’t that interested in the national economy. The pairing of election and financial coverage with the violence and mayhem of the action was just a device to drive home a rather heavy-handed point. Again, I get it. The filmmakers reiterate their point every few minutes, through dialogue, through actions, through news reports. Quite simply, it detracts from the story they are trying to tell. The story needs to be king. Maybe I just prefer more subtlety in my subtext.
The film is at least well acted. I’ve never seen a bad performance by Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini has an amusing part as a drunken and clinically depressed hitman who has recently had his heart broken by a hooker. And while I was put off by the violence in the film, I can’t deny that there was certain artistry to it—the hit on Markie was especially interesting to watch. But that doesn’t mean it was necessary. It felt more like the director was showing what he could do with special effects than including it to further the narrative. I’m never offended by graphic violence. I’m not offended by graphic nudity or graphic language, for that matter. However, filth without purpose is juvenile.
This film was fairly well received at Cannes and is likely looking for more recognition in hopes of an Oscar nod. It won’t get one. The film is too uneven. There is too much preaching about the loneliness of American society and the damage done by unscrupulous businessmen. It could have been a great movie if the filmmakers had restrained themselves from hammering their point home in nearly every scene. There’s something to be said for understatement. “Killing Them Softly” might have benefited from a competent script and a careful director. As it is, it’s just another forgettable film about the mob.