Saturday, December 1, 2012

Movie Review: "Killing Them Softly"

Brad Pitt has played many different types of roles in his career, but I tend to think of him either as the clean-cut everyman (think Se7en, Moneyball, even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the swoon-worthy, misunderstood heartthrob (think Legends of the Fall or Thelma and Louise), or the quirky one (think Burn After Reading). Even his "villains" tend to have more depth than they do in the hands of other actors.

That is probably why I found his character in Killing Them Softly really fascinating. We've seen the world-weary hitman many times before, but Pitt's Jackie Cogan menaces without ever raising his voice. He looks like he's had more than a handful of miles on him, and many times during the film you almost feel like his character wants to roll his eyes at what he's hearing and seeing, but he also seems like the type of guy you want to like you even as you know he's going to kill you.

Two recent ex-convicts, desperate Frankie (Argo's Scoot McNairy) and slimy Russell (The Dark Knight Rises' Ben Mendelsohn) are enlisted to hold up a successful card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). If you've seen the trailer for this movie once or twice, you know that Frankie and Russell aren't the smoothest criminals, but they're able to walk out unscathed. The robbery catches the attention of the mob, whose paper-pushing attorney (Richard Jenkins) enlists Jackie to figure out who is behind the robbery, and enact retribution on the perpetrators.

It's fairly easy for Jackie to figure out what transpired and who was behind it, but he convinces the mob to send "New York Mickey" (James Gandolfini), once a force to be reckoned with, to help him out. But Mickey is a mess—a blow-hard ready to eviscerate slow waiters, but one who falls to pieces at the thought of his wife serving him with divorce papers. So Jackie realizes there's only one person who can handle his problems—himself.

There's not a tremendous amount of suspense in this movie. I clearly have seen too many movies like this, as I kept expecting double crosses to occur, but the plot was fairly straightforward. The movie is slow at times because there is a lot more dialogue than action. The film does have a few cinematographic tricks up its sleeve—a murder/car crash boasts some pretty cool styling—but other filmmaking twists, like trying to portray the fog experienced by someone on heroin, don't work as well.

Pitt does a good job with his character, as his outward demeanor never belies the violence he clearly feels comfortable with. Gandolfini brings his familiar shtick but layers it with a portrayal of a man who has been able to control everything in his life except his own life. McNairy, as one of the two robbers, almost makes you feel sorry for the mess he's gotten himself into, although you certainly don't feel the same sympathy for Mendelsohn's character. And Jenkins, whose character sends the message that even organized crime is mired in bureaucracy and financial management challenges, is appropriately both comfortable and appalled with what he's asking for.

I feel like this movie had a lot of great potential but just didn't quite reach it. It's an interesting character study more than the crime caper I thought it would be, and it might be better suited for an evening of Netflix rather than time in a movie theater.

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