06 December, 2012

Review: "Killing Them Softly" (****)

Brad Pitt stars in "Killing Them Softly"

With a 7-10 split between the critical and audience opinions, Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" has to be one of the most confusing releases of the year. After earning good marks in Cannes and a majority of praise from critics, CinemaScore gave the film a rare "F" after polling audiences. The dynamic duo of Dominik and Pitt are responsible for one of my all time favorite films, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," so, naturally, I wanted to expect great things.

The movie starts out on a high note, as Greig Fraser's red-eye gravy washed photography transforms New Orleans into an all-but-abandoned metropolis, where only warehouses and gangsters remain. This film has, pretty easily, some of the best cinematography of the year. A high-speed, slow-motion crash sequence is mesmerizing, while a tripped out drug sequence is appropriately maddening to sit through. Some smooth fades and overlaps add extraordinary character to the film's already striking visuals. A good mix of Americana music textures the film; a perfect match for all of the old cars and wood paneling on display. Some of the sound mixing during a rainy fight scene seems overdone. Punches land too loudly; thuds maxing out the speakers. I get the sense that this was purposeful, but I fail to understand the intended effect.

The film lacks a clear protagonist, but Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins all take turns sharing the spotlight in a series of long, densely written conversational scenes. Though they feature in less screentime, Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini certainly land with no less impact. Their two characters are the most tragic and despicable, respectively. Pitt is the most soft-spoken we've ever seen him, or at least he starts out so. By the end, his freight-train performance barrels through the screen, moving with unstoppable momentum. McNairy, who is having a remarkable year, puts forward another sympathetic turn.

Many complaints about "Killing Them Softly" are centered around the use of George W. Bush and Barack Obama speeches and commentary from 2008. The use of these as a context device is appropriate, but it lies somewhere in between more than enough and comical overkill. It is likely that Dominik did intend for some humor here, but the film's darker tone will keep people from laughing at the political subtext. Luckily, his astute screenplay picks up any pieces that might have been left behind in the transition from 1974 novel to modern day film.

"Killing Them Softly" amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It is a smart film, but too abstruse to connect with a mainstream audience.

4 out of 5 stars.

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