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Killing Them Softly

December 1, 2012
Killing Them Softly

Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of cinephilia. More astute critics than I have analyzed the opening scene of his breakout Reservoir Dogs — the “Like a Virgin” monologue — as a metaphor for the intended effect of the entire film on an audience as experienced and jaded as he was. That said, Tarantino can be praised for displaying a remarkable sense of restraint — yes, restraint — because for all the love he has for quoting classic and obscure films, he always does it in service to telling a story.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Andrew Dominik is a rank amateur cinephile who thinks he could make a movie himself out of all the great things he loves in other movies if only he were handed the director’s chair, but going by Killing Them Softly a viewer could be forgiven for drawing that conclusion. What started life as George Higgins’ pulpy 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade ends up on screen as a sprawling mess of bits culled from dozens of far superior films.

The story concerns the fallout from a spectacularly ill-advised holdup. Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) brings in Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to carry out a job, and Frankie brings in Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help. All three of them have evidently done time together, but their backstory is muddled since most of it was cut out in the adaptation. Anyway, Squirrel’s idea is to hold up a gangland poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) despite the fact that this will bring down the wrath of every crime boss in Boston. The catch is that Markie once robbed his own game; everybody knows that by now, and he’ll be the obvious fall guy because crime bosses are not known for the thoroughness of their vengeance.

Except that if there’s one thing pop culture crime bosses are known for, it’s the thoroughness of their vengeance. The group — via their spokesman (Richard Jenkins) — make arrangements with hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of business, including the possible assistance of the New York-based and prison-bound Mickey (James Gandolfini) who can work the weekend at a discount given his immanent incarceration.

Think of gritty crime movies, especially ones considered to be particularly well-made. Think of every iconic scene that makes you as a film-lover sit up and take notice. Long takes, wide shots, odd camera placements, banter, the works. Everything on your list is probably crammed in here at some point or another, and not usually very well. A wide tracking shot of Russell walking a dog towards Frankie is technically well-composed, but it comes off as meaningless and self-indulgent, and it doesn’t tie in with anything else around it. The way a camera placed on a car door jiggles when the door opens and closes just reminds you of how Breaking Bad does it so much better.

The dialogue is long and rambling, and has all the hallmarks of a writer trying to compose something Deep and Meaningful. Inserting clips of news coverage and speeches during the 2008 financial crisis also feels like Dominik is really convinced of his own script’s importance on some wider scale. But it’s really just tedious and boring, and feels like a context-free collection of greatest hits of crime drama lines. Jenkins is a welcome respite, having locked down the middle-manager-of-evil character long ago, and Liotta has played many a not-so-wise guy in his day. But Curatola, McNairy, and Mendelsohn are just excruciating whenever two or more of them are on-screen, delivering their banter with the pacing of an elementary school Thanksgiving pageant.

Dominik is not untalented. He clearly knows and loves a lot about movies, and can execute individual scenes and shots with a truly skillful eye. But throwing these cinematic pieces all together and stirring in some contemporary political red meat does not constitute an insightful or engaging film, no matter how many recognizable stars you can convince to come on board.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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