What do Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, and James Gandolfini have in common? They were all in a decent movie that no one will remember in five years. Released at the end of November (in the middle of Oscar season), Killing Them Softly is an easily forgettable crime thriller written and directed by Andrew Dominik (the mind behind The Assassination of Jesse James). I saw Killing Them Softly in the theater, and I genuinely enjoyed it. Solid performances, an engaging story, nifty cinematography; certainly not an Oscar winner, but a good movie nonetheless. A week later, at Christmas dinner with my family, I could not remember the plot, the stars, or even the title. Maybe if it had not been directly competing with Lincoln, and Argo I would not have forgotten it so easily. Or perhaps the cause is something much deeper.
Three less-than-professional criminals rob a mafia card game, framing Markie Trattman (Liotta), and throwing the entire criminal economy into turmoil. That is, until hired gun Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to find out who was really behind the operation, and restore order to the town. Oh, it's also set against the 2008 election, but that won't matter until we get to the end.
Sadly, the defining feature of Killing Them Softly is how forgettable it is. Dominik tried to set it apart from other crime dramas by pacing it differently, giving characters a bit more depth, and applying a moral to the story. However, he created some sort of perfect storm, and wound up with something incredibly generic. The movie also takes itself just a bit too seriously. The reason Guy Ritchie's movies work so well, and are so memorable, is that the characters, or the setting, or the plot, are just past believable, and they are shot and edited with just a touch of parody. Killing Them Softly has the right characters, and there is certainly a hint of camp in the beginning, but it doesn't carry through the end, and there is no single element that makes a lasting impact on the audience.
Where Killing Them Softly really falls on its face is the ending. There are political ads from the 2008 U.S. presidential election peppered throughout the film, and it's never really clear why any of that is important. Frankly, I assumed that the ads were only there to provide a timeframe; perhaps give the setting a bit more depth, or to amplify (and mirror) the harsh economic climate the mafia was facing. To an extent, that goal is achieved, but the ads are so prevalent that they must have meant something much deeper to Dominik.
The audience finally discovers the point of the constant election coverage, and indeed the whole movie, when Brad Pitt delivers his last line during President Obama's acceptance speech on election night: “America's not a country, it's just a business.” Until that final line, there is no real indication that there is even a moral to the story - there are just criminals doing criminal things, which worked perfectly for Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Reservoir Dogs, and a whole host of other crime films. By trying to have a moral, and requiring a character to tell the audience just what that moral is, Dominik took his film from a fun mobster movie to something much more ham-fisted. Don't let that stop you from seeing it. Killing Them Softly is still a very fun, violent ride, and absolutely worth watching.