Killing Them Softly, adapted from the novel by George V. Higgins, and set in New Orleans, is a gritty film that makes good use of a stark colour palette and features sound-bites from recent election speeches that basically form part of the score, to bring this grim story to the screen. It's worth noting these sound-bites too because they position the film very much in the modern era, only a few years ago.
The original novel was published in 1974 and so it's an interesting decision to modernise it by the screen-writer/director Andrew Dominik (known for his previous films Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Tom Ford) but a welcome one to me because I thought the point of the economy in crisis etc was good and played well as a parallel with the film's themes.
However, I have not read the novel and would be interested in the views of someone who had. I could have hunted down a copy and read it, but being a purist then I wouldn't have judged the film on its own merits but as an adaptation from the book. Having not read the novel this is a review of the film, as a film itself, not as an adaptation.
To sum it up, I still don't know exactly what to make of it. It wasn't overflowing with violence, but when it was violent it was full-on. Brutal sound editing meant that you heard an excruciating crunch or thud as every punch and kick landed in soft flesh or came up against bone. One scene in particular delivers a real visceral experience and was even more disturbing as it contrasted so strongly to the film's strange, and darkly amusing aspects at other times.
The cast is wonderful, and as it features Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola, it's hard not to see it through the lens of great gangster movies and TV shows of the past like Goodfellas and The Sopranos. The only thing that's problematic about this is that anything that reminds you of The Sopranos or Goodfellas is almost certainly going to come up second best in a comparison. Ben Mendelsohn also gives another great performance after his outstanding (and disturbing) turn in Animal Kingdom.
So, to the plot – a mob-protected poker game gets hit. This has happened once before to the same game, and they knew who it was but there was no recompense for the actions. This time it isn't going to be left alone. They call in an enforcer to take care of things. This enforcer is played brilliantly by Brad Pitt, but long ago he proved himself a great actor and not just a pretty face, so it's hardly surprising. It's also a role with that kind of black humour that I associate with him (think Tyler Durden or Lt. Aldo Raine). Richard Jenkins is also very funny in his role and the scenes with him and Pitt are some of my favourites, getting me laughing a few times.
In fact, I chortled my way through quite a lot of this film and felt really terrible while I did so. Essentially, what was really going on or being discussed was terrible, vulgar or just plain wrong - and yet I was giggling. I wasn't the only one at the screening I attended laughing so that at least makes me feel a little better. It's intended to be somewhat comedic as well, albeit very dark humour on show.
We don't get a huge amount of character development – I formed an opinion of most of the characters immediately after they were introduced, and this rarely changed. But that wasn't the point of the film. There was to be no cuddly coming together at the end as anyone familiar with mob stories should already know. In fact, that is exactly why Pitt's character doesn't like to get close to his victims. He wants to avoid emotions in his work – he sees it as purely a business.
Apparently the original cut of the film was over two hours, and so I'm glad it was cut down so much because it really doesn't have the need to be longer than it is. If the extra run-time would have given us more background or more true character interaction it would have been fine, but I somehow think it would have been just more of the same.
There were some nicely shot scenes, artsy 'bullets shattering glass in slow motion' type stuff that were kind of cool. Overall though I wasn't blown away on a purely visual level.
The political sound-bites fit with the film's subject matter. At one stage Pitt's character even refers to what is being said in the speech playing in the background. They are in effect the film's score. This idea of passionate speeches as score works on this occasion as the sound is kind of harsh and seems to complement the rubbish strewn streets, dodgy car parks and ugly, grim suburbia the film greets us with.
On a soundtrack note however Johnny Cash's When The Man Comes Around is a very good choice for this film.
Killing Them Softly is a reasonable film, certainly well acted and competently directed, and manages to feel like it does bring something new to the table and isn't just a repeat of old subject matter. However, it's probably reasonably safe to say that it won't be remembered with the same fondness or lauded with the same critical plaudits as its predecessors. That doesn't mean it isn't a good film. I think if you're into mob stories then it's worth your while to give it a go, but don't expect it to reinvent the wheel, or set a new benchmark. It was a reasonably enjoyable film but didn't leave me with any strong feelings on it either way. It lacks the layers of other mob stories and as such feels kind of hollow. That's just my take on it, and I'm sure that there are many cinema goers out there who would love it. Maybe I'm just hard to please.