Review: ‘Killing Them Softly’ Makes a Lot out of Murder

The underworld is just like us in Killing Them Softly, a gritty, well-acted movie about the trials and tribulations of being a mob hit man. What with emotional breakdowns,¬†unforeseen¬†complications, not to mention an unfavorable economy, it’s hard out here for a guy who just wants to mete out mob justice on some two-bit stick-em-up men.

Frankie (Scoot McNairy, whose real name far outpaces his character’s name), and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) team up with Amato (Vincent Curatola) to knock over an illegal card room in some mob basement. It’s a small crime, done by small men. They hope to lay the blame at the feet of the man who runs the show, Markie (Ray Liotta).

But the corporate suits upstairs aren’t buying it. Although the financial damage is minimal, the damage to their reputations on the street is enormous. They must deal with the perpetrators. Sadly for all, for he is well-liked, relatively innocent Markie must be sacrificed as well to the street cred of the mob.

Enter Jackie (Brad Pitt), an elite enforcer come to clean the whole sad mess up.

And when I say clean it up, I mean, of course, kill a lot of people in messy ways.

I believe that’s understood.

If you’re looking for a slow-mo mob bullet to the brain, rendered in beautiful artistic color and set to heartbreaking music, you’ve come to the right movie.

Brad Pitt, the former pretty boy heartthrob, was apparently born to play a soulful but cruel hitman. He regrets some of the things he does, but like middle management everywhere, accepts the more unsavory bits as the price of doing business.

The truly outstanding performance, however, comes from James Gandolfini. He’s an outside hitman called in for the special task, but it quickly becomes apparent his life is unraveling. It’s not the killing that gets to him, no, but his love for his straying wife and for various mistresses and call girls that come through his life. A bundle of aggression and hurt, he holes up in a hotel, soaking up the whiskey and trying to convince everyone he hasn’t lost his edge.

Although their business is murder, in some ways the characters might as well be dotcom drones or corporate climbers. The message comes again and again: You are on your own. When the bullets start flying, there is no such thing as solidarity.

Set against a backdrop of campaign speeches from the Bush/Obama race of 2008, the film tries to make a broader statement on life in America. It falls somewhat short on this, because the reality for most of us is a lot less blood and a lot more friendship, but the point it aims for feels profound even if you can’t quite nail it down.

However, once you endure the opening twenty minutes or so, in which the story is set up so bluntly one wonders what the point is, the film is an enjoyable and meaty version of the mob genre. Rated R, the movie is quite violent and has a lot of swearing. It has little actual sexual content, but a great deal of implied and/or discussed sexuality, including discussion of things like bestiality. Be prepared. While these conversations only serve to establish the desperate underworld nature of the lowlifes we’re dealing with, they can be shocking.

Equally shocking, however, is the humanity the film pulls out of the characters. Somehow, scum and murderers though they are, the audience still finds itself rooting for them. Sure, you murder for a living and I write about movies, but much of our underlying realities are the same.

That’s a tall order for a movie and this one pulls it off nicely. It’s not for everyone, but for what it is, it’s a pretty good example.