Killing Them Softly (The Weinstein Company, R)

film killing-them_75Reminding me of Seven Psychopaths inside the first few minutes didn’t do the film any favors.

 

film killing-them_500

One of my most-hated films so far this year was Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, which felt like Snatch-era Guy Ritchie adapting a bad Charlie Kaufman screenplay. In other words, the new Andrew Dominik film Killing Them Softly reminding me of Seven Psychopaths inside the first few minutes didn’t do it any favors. And while, for the most part, the similarities between the two films are surface level (the thing that brought Psychopaths so quickly to mind is that Killing Them Softly features a “tough” gangster who, among other things, scams money off of people by stealing dogs), Killing Them Softly is a lot closer it is in quality to Psychopaths than it is to, say, Dominik’s previous film, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I am a huge fan of.

Killing Them Softly does have that Guy Ritchie reek about it, the same as Psychopaths did (why does knockoff-Tarantino Ritchie seem to be influencing more people these days than Tarantino himself does?). Gangsters double-cross gangsters, but it’s never really interesting or funny and you never really care about what happens to anyone. Specifically, here we have three petty crooks, Johnny (Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who rob a high-profile card game put on by a guy named Markie (Ray Liotta). It is well known that Markie has in the past robbed his own card games, so mastermind Johnny assumes that when a game is robbed again, everyone will suspect Markie while he and his crew get off scot-free. Of course, things don’t quite go as planned, which introduces us to two characters—an uptight criminal businessman manager type (Richard Jenkins, whose character doesn’t have a name; he’s basically just faceless America given a face) and professional hitman and hitman-coordinator Jackie (Brad Pitt, in his second collaboration with Dominik)—who come in to clean up the mess.

It’s remarkable the things that Killing Them Softly gets wrong, where Grand, to a lesser extent Chopper (Dominik’s first film, which introduced the world to Eric Bana), got them right. Surely the loss of Jesse James’ cinematographer Roger Deakins (who just shot Skyfall) and musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis didn’t help him out any. While new cinematographer Greig Fraser (who also shot the forthcoming Kathryn Bigelow film Zero Dark Thirty) is functional, Dominik switches from Cave and Ellis’ gorgeous score on Jesse James to the most obvious pop tunes imaginable here. Some examples: Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” when Brad Pitt’s character is introduced; The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” while Russell is shooting heroin; Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters” during a slo-mo assassination. (The lyrics to “Love Letter” as used here—“Love letters, straight to your heart…”—can only be an homage to what Frank Booth says a love letter is in Blue Velvet “a bullet from a fucking gun.”)

Beyond that, where Chopper had a powerhouse performance from Bana (see his rise to international fame soon thereafter) and Jesse James had several performances of approximately the same caliber (particularly from Casey Affleck, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on that film), no one in Softly resonates basically at all. The film does have a few good moments (the card game robbery scene’s a good one, and the final speech in the film is amusing), but on the whole, this one’s going to go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. | Pete Timmermann

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