For a film whose characters range from unlikable to amoral and loathsome and that’s speckled with moments of ultra-violence and amoral views of life, the aptly named Killing Them Softly is a weirdly entrancing piece of cinema. A quality little caper film involving a card-game robbery run gradually amok, with the kind of meditative criminal gristle we expect from the Quentin Tarantino/Coen brothers trade, Killing draws us skillfully into its world.
There will be hit men involved, including the eerily suave Brad Pitt and a midlife-crisis-muddled misogynist (James Gandolfini), and various intensities of bad guys in the pecking and hittable order. New Zealand–born director Andrew Dominik, whose The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also with Pitt) was another brilliant and oddly contemplative crime saga, also penned the sharp, lean and, yes, mean script here, based on George V. Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade.
Besides the film’s appeal as a dark gallery of rogues, the cinematic wiles are something to behold. This is a film in which the periphery counts for much, including a running subplot of the 2008 fiscal meltdown drifting into our auditory awareness from television sets in bars and other places, with Dubya Bush’s ominous pronouncements about bank bailouts and other high, unpunished crimes. Wall Street intersects with the mean streets here.
On a purely sensory level, the film is remarkably sound-conscious, steeping in the ambience of a space and keeping music to a minimum, which makes it count when suddenly we hear Johnny Cash’s sepulchral wisdom, or the telling lyrics of vintage tunes like “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” or the veritable anthem in the chilling-then-lulling finale, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” As our cynical antihero hit man, Pitt, with his angular hairdo, glides into the payoff portion of the story, when the line “it’s a Barnum and Bailey world” takes on a kind of ominous meaning.
When it comes to artfully made, self-aware films such as this one, crime does pay, at least in filmic terms.