Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie review: killing them softly

Whatever it may say about our culture (especially in light of recent horrific events), America loves quirky gangster flicks.  The Everyday Joe professional hit-man is such a staple protagonist in American film-dom as to be almost cliché.  But while Andrew Dominik's killing them softly is a quirky gangster flick about an Everyday Joe hit-man it's also fresh and funny and delivers stark social commentary.

Dominik is relatively new as a feature film director.  killing them softly is his third major film.  I didn't recognize any of his other titles.

killing them softly is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, in the waning days of the (Junior) Bush presidency.  Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires street punks Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to knock over a mobbed-up card game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  The heist goes off, money goes astray, and times get tough in gangster land.  The powers that be, represented by Driver, their shady lawyer (Richard Jenkins), hires out Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to discover and eliminate the perpetrators.  Jackie subcontracts his buddy, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him.

The atmosphere Dominik creates in the film recalls the dread that was so prevalent in the fall of 2008 when the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse.  He sprinkles the story with headlines, television news commentaries, and other media from the era.

In one scene, Cogan confers with Driver about the state of the gangster economy.  "Since the game got knocked over, everybody's afraid," explains Cogan.  "Nobody's comfortable putting money at risk.  We gotta take care of this and get people doin' what their supposed to be doin'."  In another, Driver, complains that his superiors seem afraid to make decisions.  "What is it," an incredulous Cogan asks, "a committee?"  Driver shakes his head.  "It's all corporate nowadays."

Ultimately, the film works because of two things:  the writing and the acting.  The script is tight and the dialog sharp. 

McNairy and Mendelson have some hilarious exchanges as they bumble their way into trouble.  And the role of Mickey is a natural for James Gandolfini.  Think Tony Soprano after his kids leave home and Carmella finally divorces him.  Brad Pitt delivers a hard-hitting monologue at the end that carries the weight of sincerity; as if Dominik were speaking directly to the audience.

The camera techniques are hit and miss.  Dominik's transitions between myopic blur and sharp focus at times distract and some of the scenes ran a little long.  But these are minor complaints.  (And on the positive side of the ledger, there's a fascinating/repellent slow-motion hit scene that occurs mid-flick.  It's a beautiful montage.)

Dominik is enormously skilled at creating high tension, funny, and/or horrifying scenes on the power of his dialog and the craft of his actors.  Comparisons with Quentin Tarantino are inevitable and justified.  But, although killing them softly is violent, Dominik spares his audience the gratuitous gore that Tarantino seems to revel in. 

This is a great flick for any red-blooded American movie-lover.  It's a quirky ganster flick.  Americans love quirky gangster flicks.

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