As I watched Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly, from director Andrew Dominik, I sat in a virtually empty theater with a few friends and several other patrons. The movie is a slow, meditative and strangely beautiful examination of bad people, and I could sense it was testing people's patience.
I kept hearing the relentless "tap, tap, tap" of restless-leg syndrome coming from somebody behind us. I heard a lot (a lot) of deep sighing from the few people who were there, along with rustling as they fidgeted.
What I am trying to say is that Killing Them Softly requires great patience while viewing. This is a movie that takes its time, features more than a few wordy monologues, and has lots of poetic slow-motion shots.
Pitt plays Jackie, a smooth, shady type called upon to clean up a situation gone bad regarding an organized-crime card game. The film is set about four years ago; the country is in recession, and that recession has spread to crime. So when the card game—a big money generator—goes down, something has to be done.
The big card game is off due to a series of robberies at the games, some of them inside jobs, some of them not. People are going to die, and it's Jackie's job to make sure that it all goes off without a hitch.
The result is an interesting look inside what makes a crime syndicate tick. I enjoyed seeing Pitt's Jackie discussing his killing plans with a buttoned-up type (played by Richard Jenkins) while parked in a swank car.
I also liked seeing a hired hit man (James Gandolfini) drinking heavily and bitching about his wife—right before he's supposed to pull off an important job. Jackie, essentially his boss, acts like an antsy shift supervisor who knows the cash drawer is going to come up short when the bell tolls, because his employee is hitting the bottle.
Dominik previously made a movie in this same vein, and it even starred Pitt as another criminal type: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a similar, meditative vibe about it. Audiences were split over that film's beauty and its slow pacing. Killing Them Softly is producing a similar reaction.
In a way, Jackie represents the sort of criminal Jesse James was in his day, although Jackie is hampered by modern problems regarding money and technology. Dominik uses speeches by Barack Obama and other political types as background noise, constantly reminding the likes of Jackie that the landscape is changing: When the average Joe is having trouble making a buck, it results in less money for stealing and paying hit men.
Ray Liotta endures what has to be one of cinema's all-time-worst beatings, full of blood, broken bones and vomit. I've read comments about how Dominik romanticizes or glorifies violence with some of his more-poetic killing sequences. Hey, the scene involving Liotta getting his clock cleaned more than balances things out. It's brutal.
Pitt is a movie star of the highest order, and every moment he spends onscreen in this film amplifies that point. Jackie is a despicable character, and while Pitt doesn't necessarily make him all that likable, he does make Jackie funny in a sinister way; he's always engaging.
I really liked the use of Gandolfini. I pictured his Tony Soprano all washed up, relegated to taking killing assignments and drinking himself to oblivion. No, he's not Tony in this movie, but I'm sure the connection wasn't lost on him or Dominik.
Critics like Killing Them Softly, while audiences are giving it an "F" (according to Entertainment Weekly's moviegoer polling). I guess that qualifies Dominik as a "critical darling"—and somebody who is going to have a hard time procuring big budgets for movie ideas in the future.