KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

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(The Scene: A poker game in the back room of a building.  Around the table playing cards sits a tough group of mobsters and killers.  The door bursts open, and two men in masks holding guns enter the room shouting for everyone to put their hands up. Another door opens and MICHAEL ARRUDA enters.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Whoa!

FIRST ROBBER:  Put your hands up!  Give us the money!

MA:  I don’t think you want to do that.  Do you realize who these people are?

FIRST ROBBER:  Shut up!  Just give us the money!

MA:  I’ve got some beer and chips in the back.  Wouldn’t you rather have that?

FIRST ROBBER:  No, I wouldn’t rather have that!  Just give us the money already!

MA: Okay.  If you say so.  Come with me.

(They walk towards the back when a third door opens, and L.L. SOARES enters.)

L.L.SOARES:  What’s going on here?

MA:  We’re being robbed.

LS: Did you tell them who it is exactly who’s playing here?  That these guys are all killers and that if they do this they’re as good as dead?

MA: I tried.

FIRST ROBBER: Shut up!  (to LS)  You!  Put your hands up!

LS:  What if I don’t wanna?

FIRST ROBBER:  Then I’ll blow a hole through your skull.

LS:  I’d like to see you try.  It’s going to be real difficult for you to see straight with an ax sticking out of your head.

FIRST ROBBER:  An axe?

(LS suddenly retrieves an axe from behind his back and strikes the robber in the head.)

MA (winces):  Ouch!  That’s gotta hurt!

FIRST ROBBER (with an axe embedded in his skull and blood pouring down his face):  Damn your fast for a big guy, I didn’t even see that coming!  How the hell were you hiding an axe behind your back?

LS:  Trade secret.
FIRST ROBBER:  You’re right.  I can’t see straight to save my life.  I’m outta here!  (Flees)

SECOND ROBBER:  Hey!  Where are you going?

MA:  Probably to the hospital.  I’d leave too if I were you.  The next weapon on our list isn’t an axe.  (holds up a nutcracker.)

SECOND ROBBER:  Yikes!  (runs away).

LS (to players):  All set.  You can get back to your game now. And we can get on with our movie review.

MA:  Yes, today we’re reviewing the new thriller KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012) by writer/director Andrew Dominik.  Shall I start us off?

LS:  Sure.  I’ve got to find me another axe anyway. Just in case we have any more visitors. I really wish I’d packed the chainsaw for this trip.

MA:  KILLING THEM SOFTLY is the latest film by writer/director Andrew Dominik, a guy who’s known for making an underwhelming number of movies.  His last film, the critically acclaimed THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) was made in 2007.  He’s not exactly churning them out every year.

LS: That doesn’t mean much. The great Terrence Malick, who made one of my favorite movies of last year, THE TREE OF LIFE, went through a period of 20 years between DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) and THE THIN RED LINE (1998) where he didn’t put out anything. And Stanley Kubrick, arguably the greatest director whoever lived, took his sweet time between movies. It’s not quantity, brother, it’s quality!

MA: You’re comparing Dominik to Malick and Kubrick?

LS: Not yet. But there’s definitely potential there. He certainly isn’t a bad director. And he made the excellent Australian prison movie CHOPPER (2000) with Eric Bana. Not bad for resume for his first three films.

MA: True, and you’re right about quality over quantity, but I find it a little strange, that’s all.  I mean, what the heck are they doing when they’re not making movies?

LS:  Does it matter?

MA:  Not at all.  I’m just curious.

Anyway, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is the story of some low-life crooks who cross paths with dangerous higher tier criminals, set against the backdrop of the troubled economy in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, so one of the themes in the movie is that crooks are struggling too.

LS: And that they’re not the only crooks. The news, like you said, is constantly rumbling about the Wall Street debacle and how we were teetering on the cliff of financial upheaval. Of course, that’s also when Barak Obama was a Senator campaigning for the presidency for the first time against John McCain, so we hear them on the news as well. I think this footage was a double-edged sword. In one way, it kinda worked because it was drawing a parallel between low-life crooks and the swindlers on Wall Street, and how everyone was feeling pretty desperate around then. In another way, it brought a whole political agenda to the movie that really wasn’t necessary. I think in the long run, I would have preferred the movie without it.

MA: I thought it added to the ugliness of the whole story.  I liked the footage.

Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  The players at this game are an exceedingly dangerous lot, the likes of which a guy like Amato would never dream of stealing from, but the angle here, as Johnny explains it to Frankie, is that some time ago Markie robbed his own game, and since he’s a likeable guy, the players when they found out years later, let him get away with it.  Amato tells Frankie that if Markie’s game is robbed again, everyone is going to blame Markie, and he’s the guy who’s going to take the fall.  The real robbers would get away with it.

LS: Or so he thinks.

MA: So, Frankie and Russell pull off the job, which of course upsets the criminal powers that be.  The man at the top, a guy named Dillon (Sam Shepard) has his man Driver (Richard Jenkins) hire a professional killer Jackie (Brad Pitt) to find the guys who robbed him and kill them.  They pretty much know that Markie wasn’t involved, yet decide he should be punished anyway, to send a message.

LS: Well, he’s not completely innocent. He did hire other guys to hold up that poker game years ago. I actually think Jackie’s logic makes complete sense. Markie had it coming. Oh, and did I mention that Brad Pitt is like the personification of cool in this movie. Jackie is friggin terrific.

MA: Jackie also enlists the assistance of a New York City hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini) since Jackie knows one of the guys he has to kill, and he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it.  As he says, he likes to kill his victims softly, from a distance.  Up close and personal, he explains, it gets messy and emotional, and he doesn’t like that.

LS: Thus, the title.

Gandolfini is actually pretty great here. Mickey is a complete sad sack, always whining and he seems to be always on the verge of tears. Instead of doing his job, he’s too busy drinking and spending all his money on prostitutes. It’s a big leap from the confidence and scariness of his most famous role, Tony Soprano.

(TONY SOPRANO enters the room)

TONY SOPRANO: Are you effin kidding me here? This Mickey is a wimp. I woulda eaten him for breakfast. So are all these guys. I woulda taken care of this whole situation in like five minutes and there would have been a lot of dead bodies on the floor.

LS: Yeah, this town really could have used a Tony Soprano.

MA: But the fact that it’s not that organized, that people get away with stuff like this, is what makes it interesting.

TONY SOPRANO: I still say I would have cleaned this up before lunchtime. And that Mickey is a friggin embarrassment.

LS: No one is disagreeing with you, Mr. Soprano.

TONY SOPRANO: Good. Youse guys make sure and keep it that way. I gotta go back to the Badda Bing now. My favorite girl is dancing tonight.

(SOPRANO exits)

LS: That was scary.

MA: Not really. You forget, this is Cinema Knife Fight Land. We’re in control here.

LS: Oh yeah. I forgot.

MA: Anyway, back to my review, Jackie sets out to complete his job, spending nearly as much time working as haggling with Driver over how much he’s going to get paid and terms of the hits, as well as dealing with Mickey who seems to be in no shape to pull off a hit.  Meanwhile, Frankie realizes that the robbery might have been a dumb move once he learns there’s a contract out for his life.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is one cynical movie.  Its stylish creative script tells a gritty story that hooks you immediately and in spite of its ensuing ugliness doesn’t allow you to turn away.  It’s not an enjoyable movie by any means.  It’s dark and it’s depressing.

I liked it.

LS: If you didn’t like it, I would have had my doubts about your reviewing skills.

It’s a solid little movie. It’s also based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by one of the best crime fiction writers of all time, George V. Higgins. He’s the guy who also wrote the classic THE FRIENDS OF EDDY COYLE which was made into a great movie in 1973 by Peter Yates starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. Higgins had a thing for dialogue – he was a master at it. And as you can tell, most of KILLING THEM SOFTLY is people talking. Sure, there are moments of brutal violence, but most of the time, people are talking things out. And the dialogue is really good. My only complaint is that there’s so much dialogue that sometimes the movie seems a little stagey – which is something that usually happens when people adapt plays for the movies – but it didn’t bother me that much, because the dialogue is so good! Higgins was a master at that stuff.

And Higgins was from Boston – our old stomping grounds – and set his stories there. You can’t really tell where KILLING THEM SOFTLY takes place – it could be any economically depressed town in the US. There is a scene where Frankie mentions local cities like Holbrook and Somerville, but it really could be anywhere.

MA; Even though this movie sports a strong cast, the true star of KILLING THEM SOFTLY is writer/director Andrew Dominik.  He scores high on both fronts.

His screenplay, which as LL mentioned is based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, is dark and cynical, and but it’s also full of sharp clever dialogue, some of it funny, but most of it plain sad.  There’s just a bunch of sad characters in this movie.  I didn’t particularly like Frankie as a character, but I certainly felt bad for him and didn’t want to see him fall victim to the likes of a hired killer like Jackie.

LS: You didn’t like Frankie? I thought the guy was at least sympathetic. The character who annoyed me the most was Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), an Australian low-life who grated on me with every scene. Don’t get me wrong, Mendelsohn does a great job bringing this guy to life, but every time I saw him, I wanted to smack the taste out of his mouth.

MA:  Yes, he was annoying.  I liked the clever juxtaposition of the crime story told in this movie with the economic woes going on in the country as a whole.  There are nonstop newscasts playing in the background throughout this movie first of press conferences of President Bush speaking about the imminent economic crisis, and then of newly elected Barack Obama speaking about hope and unity, sentiments the characters in this movie, in the midst of their own troubled lives, don’t share at all.

I loved Brad Pitt’s speech at the end of the movie, where he says America isn’t a community, it’s a business, and we’re all on our own.  It’s an incredibly cynical soliloquy.  For a moment I thought I was on Facebook.

LS; It was a helluva lot more poignant than something you’d read on Facebook, you goober.

MA:  No, I meant how people go on relentless political tirades on Facebook.  His speech was like that.

LS: Yeah, except it friggin ROCKED.

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MA: I enjoyed Dominik’s work behind the camera just as much as his script.  There were some very taut scenes in this film, including the robbery of the poker game, which I found very gripping.  I kept expecting someone to pull a gun and start a bloodbath.

LS: Yeah, that was always a possibility.

MA: The scene where Markie is worked over is brutal.  He gets the crap kicked out of him big time, and it’s as unsettling a beating as you’ll see in a movie.  Better yet, Dominik didn’t use CGI blood here, so things looked real.

LS: The way that scene is filmed, the points of view, the use of sound when the punches land, was pretty much perfect. One of the best “guys getting the crap kicked out of him” scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

MA: However, later in a key murder scene, CGI blood is used, and so in spite of some very stylish camerawork, I found this scene less satisfying.

LS: I don’t know, I liked that scene a lot, too. That murder scene is actually poetic, the way every bullet shatters car glass that cascades like rain. And during that scene, the song “Love Letters” by Ketty Lester is playing. It’s a creepy little love song that was also used to similar effect in David Lynch’s masterpiece, BLUE VELVET (1986), and was most probably meant to be a moment of homage to Lynch’s film.

MAPoetic, but fake looking.  It didn’t wow me as much as it wowed you.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY reminded me a little bit of Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), although it’s not as “in-your-face” as that movie.  It’s much more reserved and less visceral, making its points more through characterizations than violence.

And while the cast is very good, it’s an ensemble cast, and no one person dominates.

LS: In an ensemble story like this, that involves a lot of people and lots of dialogue, it’s really easy to misstep, but Dominick handles everything really well. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got a dream cast here. These actors must have relished the chance to be part of such a great script, though. We should mention again that Dominick also wrote the screenplay.

MA: I enjoyed Brad Pitt a lot as Jackie Cogan, the enforcer who’s all about the business and getting the job done. It’s a subtle performance, nothing like his lively turn in Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009).

LS: You know, Brad Pitt is a really underrated actor. He is better known for his appearances in the tabloids, where every move he makes with Angelina Jolie is scrutinized, than for his acting, which is a shame. He’s certainly not just a pretty boy. This guy can friggin act. The first time he completely blew me away was back in FIGHT CLUB (1999) and he’s had lots of great roles since then, including his hilarious one in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. KILLING THEM SOFTLY just reinforces how great this guy is.

MA:  Agreed.

Scoot McNairy makes for a very sympathetic Frankie.  We just saw McNairy in ARGO (2012), and before that in MONSTERS (2010).  I thought James Gandolfini was excellent as Mickey, the New York hitman dogged by his personal problems and alcoholism.  Once again, Richard Jenkins makes his mark, here as Driver, coming off two memorable performances, one in CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011) and the other in LET ME IN (2010).

LS: Richard Jenkins is a terrific character actor. One of the best in the business. I first really started to pay attention to him as an actor when he played the father (actually most of the time, he was a ghost) in the HBO series SIX FEET UNDER (2001 – 2005), but he had been in tons of movies before then, and he’s been working a lot since. He’s really a great go-to guy for directors. And I hope they keep hiring him, because it’s always a treat to see Jenkins at work.

MA: Ray Liotta, looking older and flabbier, is nearly as sympathetic as McNairy was as Frankie.  I found his Markie likeable, mostly because almost everyone else in this film is unlikeable.

LS: Yeah, you can see why he got a pass the first time around. As we’re told, “Everyone likes Markie.” And Liotta is perfect in this role. He’s been in tons of great movies, but he might always be known best as Henry Hill in Martin Scorcese’s excellent GOODFELLAS (1990).

MA: Vincent Curatola is also very good as Johnny Amato, in a small role.  Speaking of small roles, you can put down Sam Shepard’s performance as Dillon in the “blink and you’ll miss him” category.  I don’t think he’s in the movie for more than sixty seconds.

If there were any drawbacks to KILLING THEM SOFTLY it’s that it’s a difficult movie to like.  It presents a very cynical story with characters who really aren’t very likeable.  It doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie, but it’s not something I’m going to want to rewatch any time soon.

LS: I disagree completely. But then again, I have never had a problem with cynical stories or unlikeable characters. This movie is dark, sure, but the characters are fascinating. And I think Brad Pitt is likable as hell here. How can you not like a character who is so damn cool? He dominates every scene he’s in.

MA: See, I didn’t find him all that cool. …

LS: WHAT???

MA: On the other hand, I did like the film’s unconventional directorial style a lot.  It definitely does not play like a traditional glossy Hollywood production. This is a gritty movie that gets down and dirty.  You can almost smell the blood, sweat, and death.

LS: Exactly, and that’s why it’s so good.

MA: Not perfect, and not for everyone, but in terms of telling its story, it’s a killer.

I give KILLING THEM SOFTLY three knives.

LS: Well, I guess I liked this one a little more than you did. I give it three and a half knives. Like you said, it’s not perfect. But it’s really good. And this is one of those movies that, the more I think about it over time, the more I’ll like it.

MOBSTER 1: Are you guys done talking yet?

LS: Yep, that’s our review.

MOBSTER 2: It’s about time.

MOBSTER 1: You two were disrupting the poker game with all that chatter. The other guys got so pissed off they just got up and left. You know how much money that cost me?

MOBSTER 2: Yeah!

MOBSTER 1: Looks like I’m gonna have to take it out of your hides.

MOBSTER 2: It’s time for a beatin’!

MA: Well, if you got another axe like you said, now is the time to use it.

LS: Naw, I couldn’t find another one.  Damn, I wish I’d brought the chainsaw.

MA: What are you saying? That we better start running?

LS: Exactly.

(LS and MA flee the scene)

MOBSTER 1: Hey! Come back here!

MOBSTER 2: Yeah, gets your beatins like a man.

(FADE OUT)

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives KILLING THEM SOFTLY ~three knives!

LL Soares gives KILLING THEM SOFTLY~three and a half knives.

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