Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Brad Pitt's New Mob Movie Surprisingly Divides Us: Our Review of "Killing Them Softly" (2012)

Directed By: Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini

Rating: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use

Run Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Synopsis: Set during the economic crisis of 2008, when a mob-protected card game is robbed by some low-level crooks, the mob hires hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to take care of the crooks.


Andrew: Hello readers! This past weekend Sarah and I ventured to a town just south of ours to see a morning screening of the new Brad Pitt vehicle, Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins.

This was one that has been on our radar not just because of its trailer, but we wrote a post way back when the first pictures were released for it because the premise caught our attention and it looked awesome.

Sarah: Yeah, when the first pictures came out, which was a long time ago, we were really intrigued by the thought of Brad Pitt playing a hit man for the mob.

A: Killing Them Softly stars Pitt as a hit man named Jackie Cogan, who is hired by the Mafia to dispose of a few low-level criminals who robbed a Mob-protected card game. Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) plays Markie Trattman, the mobster whose game is knocked over; Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) plays the mob’s lawyer who hires Cogan; James Gandolfini (Zero Dark Thirty) plays Mickey, another hit man who Cogan brings in to the job; and Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) play Frankie and Russell, the thugs who rob Markie’s game.

Again, this was one that had been on our radar, but now that we've seen it, what did you think of Killing Them Softly?

Ben Mendelsohn (left) and Scoot McNairy play a couple of low-level criminals named Russell and Frankie who are hired to rob a mob-protected card game. For the first 30 minutes of the movie they're the main focus, for good and bad.

S: It was not what I was expecting, but I liked it! I found that to be very interesting. I thought it was good, but it was just…different. And I was thinking this as we left the theatre, we've kind of heard and read from Brad Pitt about how he’s changed how he chooses which movies to make as he’s gotten older. And this is definitely a reflection of that change, and I liked him in this role…

A: Sorry to interrupt, but how exactly was this a reflection of his new way of picking his movies?

S: Well it’s sort of the fact that he and Angelina Jolie have six kids, and so now he’s changed the way he picks his movies…I think it has to do with what roles he finds are worthy enough to take away from his family time. He takes films that he finds are important to him.

A: Gotchya. Ok, so you were saying you liked him in this role?

S: I did. Brad Pitt definitely has a presence, and we see that a bit in this movie, but…I just got a different feel for him in this film than I normally do with his other characters.

A: To go off of that, before I say my overall thoughts on the film, that’s one thing I love about Brad Pitt. Of all the big-name actors in Hollywood right now, he’s been one of the few huge stars who has been willing to dress down and not always be the pretty boy.

Yes at the very beginning of his film career he was the pretty boy in things like Thelma & Louise and A River Runs Through It, but he was also in things like Kalifornia where he plays a really dirty serial killer, and he was in True Romance where he played a hilarious stoner, so yeah he looks great but he doesn't mind getting dirty or playing a character that’s not all about his great looks. Even his arguably best-known role as Tyler Durden in Fight Club is about him wanting to destroy beautiful things, himself included.

S: Yeah, and he’s not the good guy in this movie, and he knows he’s not! This is a business to these characters, and Pitt’s Cogan is a businessman who just needs to do what he needs to do.

So then what did you think of the movie?

A: I hated it.

S: Really?? No way!

A: Yup. I hated it.

S: Really?!

A: From the very beginning, I hated it.

S: I am BLOWN away. Wow! I've never been this stunned. I am shocked to the core!

A: Probably around the scene where Pitt and Gandolfini are in a hotel room and Gandolfini is ranting about the world and the economy, it took about everything in me to not tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey I’m gonna go hang out in the lobby for the rest of this.”

I found it incredibly pretentious. I found it boring, and it has no flow to it whatsoever. It’s very episodic in its structure, and not in a good way. Pitt doesn't even come in until 20 or 30 minutes into it and then when he IS on the screen he gets very little dialogue until the last act.

S: Wow.

A: So it was just…the set-up was fine. But from the very beginning until the very end what I hated the most was how much the director, Andrew Dominik, hammered it over our heads that this movie takes place during the recession in 2008. Seriously, there’s not a single scene where he’s not jamming it into our ears and eyes, “We’re in a recession! We’re in a recession! These mob guys are just worried about their money and how they’re going to live!”

There are clips of George W. Bush and Barack Obama constantly playing through this movie. Almost every scene where a character is speaking there’s some sort of audio or visual thing in the background to not-so-subtly remind you that the film is taking place in 2008 during an economic crisis.

S: There’s certainly a political agenda feel to the whole thing.

A: Yeah, and just that we’re constantly reminded of when it’s set and how these guys are in a business and how it’s all about money to them and nothing more.

S: So what you’re missing is the romanticism of a gangster movie.

A: A little bit. That’s interesting that you say that. There’s really no romanticism here, which is fine, because being a gangster isn't supposed to be romantic.

S: But that old notion of how they used to be on top of the world.

A: I just hated that…how do I put this…to be constantly reminded and to constantly have these unsubtle things going on…it drove me crazy.

The worst example is this: Liotta’s Markie robbed his own card game years ago and was given a pass by the mob, which is why Frankie and Russell are hired to rob his game and make it look like Markie did his own game again so that the mob goes after him and they’ll get off scot-free. That’s what happens and so Pitt’s Cogan has a couple of his thugs beat up Markie to get the answers out of him.

And these two gangsters are listening to the radio in the car on their way to pick up Markie and they’re listening to talk radio! What low-level gangsters are going to be listening to the news on the radio about how bad the economy is???

S: I will give you that. It had some plot flaws to it. I didn't necessarily like the plot itself…

A: Don’t get me wrong, I love the basic premise of the movie. I love it. That’s why I was excited to see it! But the execution was just way too off for me.

S: I’m just surprised you hated it so much.

A: I found it incredibly boring. And it's almost all talk, which normally isn't a bad thing, but for some reason I found that to be a negative here.

James Gandolfini's Mickey is one of those boring and talkative things. But we'll get to that in a bit.

S: Ok, that’s one thing about it for me. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind, in a specific frame of mind to go see this movie and I think I was IN that frame of mind. The fact that it is very talky is part of that.

There are some things about it I thought were really cool. Some of the camera shots? Like when we see Cogan for the first time and he gets in a car with Richard Jenkins’ counselor, the scene is shot so it feels like you’re in the backseat of the car looking at each guy when he’s speaking. I loved that you felt like you were in the car.

I liked when Cogan gets out of a two-door car on his way to whack a guy it's clear that the camera is attached to the door, because it swings with the door opening and closing. I was like, “Oh that’s cool!” I just felt like some of the technical aspects were really interesting.

A: Some of the directorial choices on how to shoot the movie were pretty cool, I’ll give you that. A lot of them were very artsy. A lot of the film is very artsy.

So I, too, liked those two shots you just mentioned. There are a number of times when a character is walking somewhere, like when the guys knock over the card game and are walking into the restaurant it’s held in, and the shot is one long tracking shot from right behind the characters. It’s like you’re walking with them, looking over their shoulder. I liked those kinds of shots.

But then it gets a little too artsy at times…

S: Like when Russell is tripping out?

A: Yes, when Russell is tripping out on heroin. Holy crap did I hate that scene.

S: Yeah, I didn't like that one either. That scene really bothered me. Actually, his entire character bothered me. I understand what his role was, but I wasn't a fan of it. That said, I did like some aspects of him like when they knock over the game, Russell never spoke because he’s Australian and his accent would be very recognizable. Little nuances like that I picked up and really enjoyed.

A: You’re right, small things like that were pretty good. But from an overall standpoint too many things drove me crazy and they overshadowed the good parts.

Gandolfini’s Mickey? When he comes in the picture? He drove me crazier than any other character.

S: Really?

A: Like...I like the idea that he's a hit man who's past his prime and knows he might go to jail for something he did...

S: Which would be his third strike...

A: And he's going to drown his sorrows. In Mickey's first scene, he and Cogan are in a bar where they're supposed to be talking about the job to be done, and all Mickey is doing is ordering martini after martini, badgering the waiter to bring them faster, and complaining about his life and the world. It was obnoxious and it went on forever.

S: Okay...

A: And then his next scene is in a hotel room with Cogan and Mickey is just rambling on and on about more things while still drinking...it's just not all necessary. Again, it was Dominik hitting me over the head with this idea and I was just thinking, "Ok, I get it! Move on!"

S: Alright, alright. I'll give you that.

A: But like you said, there are little nuances, little directorial choices that I liked. And there were some that I didn't like. But just overall, I was bored with the movie. I think they should have given Brad more to do. Hell, even in one of his big scenes where he finds Scoot McNairy's Frankie, they're talking in generalities...

S: They're very vague, yeah, that was annoying.

A: It just wasn't a great dialogue scene considering it was one of the rare times that Pitt actually GETS a chance to have a great dialogue scene. It was just like...man, this was a waste of his talents.

S: I would disagree with you on that, because I feel like in most movies that Brad Pitt is in, a lot of the times he gets more than his fair share of screen time. I think where they screwed up the most with Killing Them Softly was the marketing. He's really not THE main character in the movie. He's A main character, but not THE main character. I mean, it is his story, but the film is far more of an ensemble than the marketing lets on, and therefore I felt it was misleading.

The marketing sets you up for what movie is going to be about, and in this case it seems like you were disappointed when it wasn't exactly as advertised. I feel like most movies...and what I mean here are Pitt's movies like the Ocean's 11 films and other stuff where he's in an ensemble cast, Pitt still manages to stand out on his own.

A: Don't get me wrong, he still stands out. The best scenes of the movie are the ones he's in. I just think a lot of the times he's wasted. Almost every scene he has is with another character, so it's either a conversation or him just straight up listening to the other guy.

Brad Pitt is essentially the star for Killing Them Softly, but Andrew thinks he gets short shrift, while Sarah
think he stands out from the rest of the ensemble .

His best scene is when Pitt and Jenkins are talking about who they're actually going to kill, and the counselor asks Cogan at one point if he could take care of a specific person, and Pitt does his little bemused look he does like, "Of course I can." It's a total Pitt-ism, and THAT'S his best scene. It's the one in the trailer where he's bemoaning about how stupid today's criminals are. But most of the time he's just listening to someone.

S: I didn't mind that. I understand that you didn't like that stuff, but I didn't mind it. I like seeing things that Brad Pitt is in and seeing how he has an oral fixation, like when he's eating stuff in the Ocean's movies, and that's not lacking here either. I still think that's a very actor move. It's an actor move, not a character decision.

I don't know. This one was different, that's why I liked it. Will we own it someday? No, probably not, I don't necessarily want to. But I'm glad that we saw it because, for me, it was an interesting movie to watch Brad Pitt be in.

A: Yes. I'm happy to see Pitt in roles like this, and I'm happy to see why Andrew Dominik has caught the eye of plenty of people in Hollywood, because he absolutely has a lot of promise. He also did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Pitt, which I've heard plenty of great things about, so I'd be curious to go back and watch that. Because I see where that promise is in the little things I did like about this movie.

But when everything is brought together as a whole, and I'm just like, "Ugh, I wish this would just get over," that's not a good thing. Another example of those not so good things is how he tried to be artsy with one high-profile hit that Cogan does in the film, which teetered between being cool slow-motion and having terrible CGI. But then that was the only time he used slow-motion on a hit, with all the others being more blunt and realistic. I wish he had been consistent with those.

S: Interesting. I guess to each his own!

A: It's not often that we disagree on a film.

S: It's not often that we disagree like THIS. Usually I'm the one who hates the movie and you're the one who has something positive to say about it or is trying to convince me. I'm not going to try to convince you to like this, because to each his own...

A: Well and like I said, I agree with some of the things you did like.

S: And I think I just happened to be in the right frame of mind to handle the talky aspect of it.

A: Real quick, I would like to say that I thought Scoot McNairy did a fine job in this film.

S: His voice bothered me.

A: His character is a bit annoying, but I thought he did a good job, especially in the bar scene with Brad. But if you want to see a Scoot McNairy film that's in theatres right now, go see Argo instead.

S: I will say this about Killing Them Softly - I thought it was a waste of Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini. I understand why you cast two guys like that. When you think gangster movie, you think those two guys. But I did think it was a little bit of a waste of their talents.

A: This movie was a waste of a lot of people's talents. Ok, final thoughts on Killing Them Softly?

S: It was just different. I would say skip it and wait for it on DVD unless you're a huge fan of these actors. It's definitely not one you have to see in theatres.

FINAL VERDICT: Netflix it!

(Individual Scores - S: 3/5  A: 2/5)

Photo Courtesies: Collider, SlateShowwatcherPaste Magazine


  1. Good review. Not perfect, but definitely a very tense and very stylized movie that benefits from the perfect performances of it's cool, inspired cast.

    1. Thanks Dan! The robbery scene is definitely tense, but other than that we weren't too impressed or worried about anybody. The last guy Cogan kills is obviously coming and so it had no shock to us, when it probably should have.

  2. So sad this movie hasn't gotten as good of reviews as I was hoping. Huge fan of Andrew Dominik and really was hoping for a solid followup to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

    1. I was pretty upset, too. Sarah liked it more than I did, and more than I was expecting her to. Kinda surprised how it could look so good and turn out so bad.