Killing Them Softly continues this rare tradition of film/TV making by showing us the true bottom feeders of organized crime ... how they live, how they scheme ... and how sometimes they go even lower into the depths of humanity to get the dirty work done and to keep the gears spinning in the criminal machine.
Though big actors fill the roles, no one in the film is considered a big wig. Ray Liotta, perhaps the highest made man in this fictional crime world (presumably New Orleans, as that is where the film was made), is merely a game kingpin: setting up illegal gambling and allowing the money to flow. The rest of the cast makes up freelance hit men, on-the-day hired burglars and go-betweens who negotiate with the lower decks, if you will.
Andrew Dominik, the director of Killing Them Softly, stated that his intention was to show how the economic collapse of 2008 affected not just normal Americans but criminals as well. And nothing is felt more under the pulse of grim desperation and impending violence in this film than the need to get money. For what purpose? Just to have it ... because the person next to you doesn't have it. And if you have to pay someone, get the best bargain available (see a brilliant sequence with Richard Jenkins, a syndicate lackey, who convinces one assassin that another assassin should fly coach).
There is a basic neo-noir plot in place: a slightly inspired underling thug hires two nobodies to rob a poker game, a game that has been robbed in the past under mysterious circumstances by the man who runs it, Markie (Ray Liotta). When the higher-ups, who we never see, suspect Markie is the thief, they send Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to investigate and, if necessary, make the hit or hits.
Jackie is more than just an assassin for hire: he is a networking genius. He knows the towns, he knows all the scores, and he knows who can come in to do specific jobs. Cold and calculating as he is, Jackie is a sentimental man too, choosing to kill his marks softly since getting too close can make things get emotional and ugly. Hence Jackie's need to hire out ... in this case, legendary New York hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini).
Mickey, Jackie and the two hapless robbers will, naturally, all collide. But it's the journey, not the destination in typical plots such as these. The plot serves mainly as a framing device to introduce us to the seedier, and less glamorous, side of organized crime films.
To start, Killing Them Softly is darkly comic and sparsely violent. Because of this, it makes the outbreaks of bloodshed more visceral and shocking and it allows a sense of comfort for those who you think might have beaten the wrap. The political tension apparent throughout the film, represented by election night 2008, is ever present through background television broadcasts, newspaper clippings and talk radio selections. Dominik never throws them in your face. He does, however, meld them to the background so you can't escape the feeling of collapse around you.
This adds to the general tension of somewhat affable goons, played hilariously by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, living their final hours and not knowing when that bullet is going to get them thanks to their get-rich scheme of robbing a tainted poker game.
The film is brisk and fast and while solid conceptually, would not work without proper actors. McNairy and Mendelsohn have already been explained, but they are just icing on the cake. Ray Liotta manages to show his range by being both entirely puny and pitiful in this film compared to menacing and dangerous in other films (like Narc and Goodfellas). Richard Jenkins is a financially conscious middle-man for the mob and the hit men and his dry delivery hits the nose.
But this film is made by Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini. Pitt is, as always, charming and intoxicating to watch, continuing a massive streak of non-cashgrab filmmaking. But the late Gandolfini is the real star of this show, playing a twice imprisoned hitman who is having a mid-life crisis of sorts. His performance, of a character who is never sober and always passive aggressively angry, is complex and diverse. From the minute you see Mickey, Gandolfini looks like he is about to fall asleep. It is this deadness to the world that makes his character so tragic, funny and pitiful.
*in this one 45 second scene: tragedy, comedy, pity
For such a short film, Dominik allows his characters to breath. There is a lot of long dialogue scenes and plenty of flashy, long takes. But it never feels like style over substance. This film is short for a running time but deep and long in its characterization. You can't ask for much more. I recommend this film highly for ever level of film making: acting, writing, directing, editing and cinematography (if not more).