Killing Them Softly is an ideal movie for actors, though that doesn’t make it an ideal movie. Not even close. There isn’t much plot, the scenes are too long, and it’s all character moments shot in sometimes gruesome close-up. It might have been called Conversations Among Gangsters. This last feature is what makes it great for actors. Lots of dialogue to chew on. But the movie feels like an indulgent project put together by good actors who had a weekend to spare and too much veneration for Reservoir Dogs.
I’m late in reviewing this movie, which is long gone from theaters, but it occurs to me that the movie might work better as a rental than as the reason for a night out. A theater screen may be too large for this small, interesting movie, which might be more suited to the home theater screen.
The most successful performance is the turn by James Gandolfini, who plays Mickey, a just-paroled gangster with extreme appetites. Of course, Gandolfini created one of the most successful and nuanced portraits of a gangster in modern film history in Tony Soprano. But his Mickey is wilder, a barely self-contained monster who casually flips from threats to self-pity. It’s a portrayal that makes you more frightened of the criminal mind than any amount of Gangster Squad-style bloodletting. In comparison, Killing Them Softly is a work of genius.
I haven’t seen Gangster Squad, so maybe this dismissal is unfair, but I feel I’ve already seen it a hundred times. I haven’t seen a movie that looked so pre-conceived, prefabricated, pre-chewed, and pre-digested as this one in a long time. Sean Penn’s portrayal of Mickey Cohen is more over-the-top than Robert DeNiro’s over-the-top portrayal of Capone in Bryan De Palma’s Untouchables.
Brad Pitt is good as a thoughtful fixer who discusses alternatives with his victims before killing them. This must be what soft killing is all about. Not, I think, what Roberta Flack had in mind when she sang “Killing Me Softly.” Pitt always surprises me as a better actor than you’d think he would be, and often in unlikely places. Watch the way he eats that sloppy sandwich in the opening of Oceans 11, a small but lovely bit of characterization.
The trouble is the script doesn’t give its characters enough to do. And we’ve seen these characters too many times before—men who bond with each other as easily as they betray each other. But I can think of many worse reasons to go to the movies than seeing good actors doing good work. Not a ringing endorsement, I guess, but there you go.