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Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the proprietor of an underground, Mob-protected poker ring, orchestrates a robbery of his own game and foolishly admits it to other members of the organization. Knowing Markie will likely be blamed for any further heists, Johnny ‘The Squirrel’ Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires former associate Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and an unpredictable drug addict named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to once again rob the poker game at gunpoint. The heist goes off without too many hitches and the Mafia hires notorious enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of business. Cogan brings in another hit man named Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini) onto the job, only to discover his old friend has become a pathetic, frustrated drunk.

Killing Them Softly
Writer/directors John Hilcoat, Martin McDonagh, and Andrew Dominik have quite a bit in common. All three men entered the motion picture game with well-received, revisionist genre films, with similar themes, and similar creative inspirations. All three were also in high demand following their feature debuts and all three took their sweet time taking advantage of that high-demand, perhaps due to a fear of a sophomore slump. Perhaps most important to this review, all three directors had a film released in 2012. (For the record, both Hilcoat and Dominik also worked with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) Hilcoat, who had followed The Proposition with the mostly successful The Road, released Lawless – a generic bootlegging drama valued almost entirely on an outstanding supporting performance from Guy Pierce. McDonagh, who would seem the least productive of the three directors (he’s only made two films), followed critical darling In Bruges with Seven Psychopaths, which was largely considered a creative step back, despite an outstanding cast (I, for one, thought it was underrated, just a bit tonally confused). Dominik followed his Aussie cult film (and Eric Bana star-maker) Chopper with arguably the strongest film of this entire discussion, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a brilliantly melancholy, continuously under-seen-despite-starring-Brad-Pitt revisionist western. His latest film, a generic modern crime thriller entitled Killing Them Softly, more or less fits the mould set by his contemporaries in 2012.

The Assassination of Jesse James was a wonderful, moving, and beautiful film, but I think even fans would agree that its deliberate pacing was perhaps a smidge excessive. Killing Them Softly’s brief runtime would lead one to assume that its pacing would be something closer to Chopper levels, but it’s really only a technically shorter movie than The Assassination of Jesse James, simply because there’s less plot to meticulously, studiously unravel. And Dominik doesn’t do anything particularly fancy in terms of unraveling the facts, he opts instead to tell a relatively straightforward story. There are a few flashbacks and a bit of plot told through a heroin haze, but, for the most part, everything is revealed in sequence. The only thing notable about the structure is that, like a Tarantino movie, the plot is built mostly around a series of extended conversations. The bigger problem is that the basic story is completely unremarkable – the crime that sets the plot in motion is typical, the characters suffer from the typical flaws and emotional angst seen in most modern crime films, and the limp outcome is predictable.

Killing Them Softly
Thematically, Killing Them Softly is sort of a cross between the gritty true-crime of Chopper and the calm beauty of The Assassination of Jesse James (which, I suppose, also counts as true-crime). It also blends the two films’ tones and rhythms. The film is based on a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade, which was apparently the third book in a loosely-related series (including The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Digger's Game). Having never read the book, it seems to me that Dominik has adapted the material to fit the dialogue style he established with Chopper – really wordy, post-Tarantino type stuff, meaning it often feels forced, over-wordy (most of those words start with an ‘f’), and awkward. This worked for Chopper, largely because the title character is a clumsy blowhard. It doesn’t work so well when all the characters are clumsy blowhards. None of the actors really know what to do with this, including Pitt, who is invariably frustrated with his cohorts, and Gandolfini, who is so excessively obnoxious for such pronounced periods of time that he might as well be beating a dead horse while speaking (his effect on the plot of the film is exactly nothing, for the record).

Reportedly, Higgins’ novel is brimming with political context, which Dominik has updated with (almost) contemporary levels. Throughout the entire film, the director constantly reminds us of the 2008 election, as well as the onset of the recession and clumsily tries to tie them to the politics of modern organized crime (reckless indifference, money troubles, old men droning on about past glories). The political subtext (if you can call something so overt subtext) was apparently the major inspiration behind the adaptation, yet, just like the gorgeous, super-slow-motion violence, this feels like an abstract choice based on what Dominik thinks is expected from a ‘smart’ genre film. The final exchange where Cogan asks for his payment for services rendered, is especially ungainly in its heavy-handed pointing to the intended subtext.

Killing Them Softly

Video


The Assassination of Jesse James can take its critical lumps with the best of them, but there’s no doubting the astronomical beauty of Roger Deakins’ cinematography. If it had been released a year sooner or after, it would’ve surely won an Oscar, but it had the misfortune of being released against There Will Be Blood (cinematographer Robert Elswit took the award) and No Country for Old Men (which was also photographed by Deakins). Killing Them Softly had a lot to live up to in terms of image. Fortunately, Dominik and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who had a powerfully eclectic year in 2012 between this, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Zero Dark Thirty) don’t really try to match the specific styles of The Assassination of Jesse James. The camera movements are similarly mellow and the compositions are similarly staged, but the process here is more about finding beauty in mundanity, not appreciating the already apparent beauty of antiquity.

Fraser uses really shallow focus and lots of close-ups, so there’s not a lot in the way of complex backgrounds or wide-shots. In fact, so much of the film is out of focus that some viewers might think something is wrong with their disc. Even the sharper close-ups are relatively soft, though there’s enough pattern and texture complexity (without notable compression noise) to verify that the blurriness is a stylistic choice. There are some very basic filmic artefacts, like softening around the darker edges of the frame and minor edge enhancement, but there’s little in terms of grain or noise to mark this as a non-digital feature. However, unlike so many movies that seem to be purposefully masking their 35mm stock, Killing Them Softly is not overly colour-graded. The basic palette is pretty natural, leaning a little towards the brown side of things. The palette is also largely dictated by wardrobe and locations, rather than post-production tampering (save the end of the film, which looks awfully green). The blacks are relatively deep, but this really depends on the overall darkness of the frame. This leaves the blacks of lighter sequences noticeably more pure than those of the darker ones.

Killing Them Softly

Audio


Killing Them Softly is an incredibly aurally dry film that focuses on utter silence and whispered dialogue. But this doesn’t mean that this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a throwaway – this a surprisingly engaging and stylistically interesting mix. The stereo and surround channels are consistently busy throughout the film with ambient noise – noise that moves to the appropriate channel, depending on character/camera placement. The ‘music’ of the ambience is found in the varying sound qualities, including warmer and colder extremes, and muffled by set-pieces and props. Sometimes, the sound will change based on subjective influences, such as a scene where a character is beaten and the patter of rain fades out as the punch-impacts grow louder. The dialogue track is mostly centered, as per the norm, but the sound designers like to widen the aural field whenever possible, so if a character moves too closely to the edge of the frame, his voice (there are basically no women in this movie) will spread to the corresponding stereo channel. Following Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ earthy Assassination of Jesse James score, Dominik opted for a much more source-heavy musical soundtrack. The choices are shockingly mundane (Pitt is introduced with ‘The Man Comes Around,’ two characters take heroin as Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ plays…), but are made an integral part of the sound design when present and move accordingly throughout the speakers in ways I don’t believe I’ve ever heard before.

Killing Them Softly

Extras


The brief extras begin with The Making of Killing Them Softly (5:20, HD), a quick EPK featuring interviews with Dominik and actors Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, and Vincent Curatola. Here, Dominik does compare crime fiction to modern issues with capitalism, complete with clips from pertinent sequences. Things are wrapped up with four deleted/extended scenes (9:50, HD) and trailers for other Anchor Bay releases.

Killing Them Softly

Overall


Killing Them Softly is undoubtedly a disappointment and a sadly unremarkable movie on just about every level, but it’s not a bad movie. Assuming you aren’t expecting anything more than an artistically shot modern crime movie flecked with awkward political allegories, there are worse things to spend your time watching than writer/director Andrew Dominik’s latest. The low-key visuals don’t make for the most impressive HD transfer and the extras are slim, but the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a great example of a low-key mix done right.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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