Tedium overtakes talent
Take a visit to your cinema and a quick look at the posters will tell you that, as far as movies go, guns are in right now.
Everyone from Liam Neeson to Karl Urban is waving a hand cannon around and the star brandishing the biggest gun of all is Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly (R16).
The film marks Pitt’s second collaboration with New Zealand-born, Australian director Andrew Dominik. The two previously worked together on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
On paper Killing Them Softly has all the makings of a great gangster movie. Dominik is a stylish film-maker, Pitt is a major star and the cast includes some terrific character actors including James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta and, ever-so-briefly, Sam Shepard.
Set four years ago when Barack Obama was banging on about hope and change, Killing Them Softly is very violent, as unsentimental as you can get and willfully bleak.
The plot concerns a couple of screw-ups, played by Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy, who hold up a mob-run high-stakes poker night. Their cunning plan is that everyone will think a not-so smart wiseguy with a history of dumb moves was behind the heist and they’ll get away scot-free.
The plan comes unstuck when a particularly merciless and street-smart killer, played by Pitt, is hired to sort out what happened and waste those responsible.
It will come as no surprise to anyone vaguely familiar with the cast to learn that the acting is brilliant.
Gandolfini is revoltingly perfect as a washed up, alcoholic, misogynistic contract killer while Jenkins achieves so much by doing so little as a mob middle man.
Following his terrifying performance in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn again shows a disconcerting talent for playing horrible junkies while McNairy, who was in 2010’s little seen but rather cool Monsters, is outstanding as a not entirely unlikeable loser with lousy taste in friends.
And while the least realistic character in the film belongs to the leading man, Pitt gives his most restrained and many will say his best performance yet.
From behind the camera, Dominik gives the film a distinctive look and in the interest of realism goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling glamour or even colour. He also does interesting things with sound and as a writer shows flair for dialogue.
Killing Them Softly also serves as a not too subtle critique on American capitalism.
Now, normally everything described above presses my buttons in very pleasing ways. Normally films like that get glowing reviews from yours truly but not this time. Why? Because Killing Them Softly is boring.
Dominik may possess a distinctive visual style and know how to get great performances but he doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in entertaining people. Killing Them Softly has little to offer in terms suspense, drama, interesting characters, twists or ideas. A chain of overly long talk-heavy scenes with little or no connection to what came before or follows makes Killing Them Softly feel more like an excuse for some talented people to work together than a movie with a story to tell.
Yes, the dialogue is occasionally strong but because the characters and plot are all so charmless it feels more like an exercise in being cool than an attempt to deliver something that audiences will actually enjoy.
Bottom line: A boring film with some great acting.