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By Riley Webster · December 3, 2012
While watching Andrew Dominik's new gangster drama Killing Them Softly, I tried to study the audience around me, especially my lovely girlfriend with her hood angrily pulled up around her head. Two people walked out. The guy in front of me kept texting and sighing. And at one point, a dude behind me hilariously said "We've got some script problems here". And then there was my beautiful lady, her legs pulled up to her stomach, faking a supporting smile every time I looked over to reassure her that it would be over soon. And then I realized that Dominik has accomplished something really quite stunning—he's done everything he can to make a movie no audience member will actually enjoy. Hell, even the good reviews the film has gotten have been of the "awesome, but hard to watch" variety. He should've just called it Pissing Them Off Slowly.
Even I started to get frustrated, and I normally quite enjoy frustrating films. I was slightly disappointed earlier this year with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master — not because it wasn't good, but because it wasn't great, and the same sort of label can apply to Softly. It isn't a bad movie, but…was it a story that actually needed to be told? It stars a multitude of great actors, from Brad Pitt to Ray Liotta, playing various mob hit-men and criminals, all coming together because of the ballsy stupidity of one card-game heist (which is admittedly a wonderfully tense scene). I've been anxiously awaiting this film for a couple years now, and while it is certainly a visually incredible film, with some of the best cinematography of 2012, it just….doesn't seem to go anywhere, or for that matter, particularly want to.
Which stuns me, because Dominik's most recent film prior to this one was the Brad Pitt western Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If that movie is not one day included among the all-time great films ever, it will be a crying shame. Certainly, it has one of the most beautiful screenplays of recent decades; every line of dialogue is roughly-hewn poetry, and the words glide out of people's mouths like chocolately butter (sorry, I'm not great with similes…) In fact, it's this reason alone that made Softly one of my most anticipated 2012 films—I knew that, if nothing else, I would be getting a grand dose of wonderful writing. And y'know what? The screenplay is the least impressive part of the film.
The general structure of the plot seems to be: two very long dialogue scenes, then a short horrifying burst of violence, then two more long dialogue scenes, than another burst of violence, and so on, until the film literally just stops, almost mid-sentence, and the end credits begin. Some of these dialogue scenes are rather brilliant, such as the ones involving the hit-man (Brad Pitt) and the mob enforcer (Richard Jenkins), which are darkly funny and laced with sharp "business of murder" insights. But then others go on, and on, and are so filled with offensive profanity that after a while even I started getting sick of the dirty talk (which I gotta tell you, is not an easy thing). It often felt less like real gangsters talking than people who watched Sopranos a lot and decided no sentence should ever be without an f-word. It's grittiness started feeling phony, because of its overuse. Where is the eloquence, the beauty, the intricacy of Jesse James' dialogue? Not here, alas. The screenplay was also hampered with the problem of making every single character sound exactly the same—they all swear, they all treat women like shit, and they all consider murder a very mundane enterprise. Take any random line of dialogue from the written screenplay and read it, and I guarantee you will have no idea which character says it—even after you've seen the movie.
The characters were rote…the dialogue overwhelmingly average…and the plot was essentially a non-starter (why bring in a massive gangster played by James Gandolfini and only show him in two scenes drinking and swearing, then abandon him?). But, but, but…Killing Them Softly is still worth watching, kind of. The general populace of movie-goers will get absolutely nothing from this film, and frankly, even guys like us who study and critique movies will often be left in the cold. But there is a lot to admire, if not exactly love. The camera work, as I mentioned before, is beautiful. Each shot is carefully composed and wonderfully lit. The classic rock song selections are surprising, but effective. The acting is also top-notch, with Pitt stealing the show as the lead hit-man with a heart of stone, and Scoot McNairy coming out of nowhere and giving a great performance as the criminal Frankie who quickly finds himself in way over his head. And there are several scenes that are among the best of the year — the heist scene had my heart pumping like crazy, the brutal beating of Ray Liotta’s character is gut-wrenching, and a balletic slow-motion murder is eye-popping.
And yet…what does it all amount to? Where does it all go? What is it ultimately saying? I haven't the faintest. Despite several allusions to the political landscape of 2008 America, Killing Them Softly seems to be, at the end of the day, a very simple crime story that starts, lingers, and then stops. In the car after the film, my lady figured all the many political references were to show that politics is just as corrupt a business as the Mafia, but if that's really what Dominik is saying….so what? We already know that! If Michael Bay had created this film, I would've been surprised and probably delighted. But for it to come from Andrew Dominik, who with just his last film proved he can someday become one of the best filmmakers out there….it's hard not to feel like a big opportunity was missed.