One look at Brad Pitt's slick hair, black leather jacket and gleaming shotgun might give you the impression that his new film, "Killing Them Softly," is a gritty, cold-blooded gangster flick — which it is. But as directed by Andrew Dominik, who also worked with Pitt on "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the 2008-set "Killing Them Softly" is also a recession-era parable about the evils of corporate capitalism.
For many critics, the film succeeds as a stylish genre exercise anchored by Pitt's unflappable performance but stumbles while trying to make a bigger point.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey writes that Dominik, who adapted the screenplay from George V. Higgins' novel "Cogan's Trade," "becomes so intent on hammering home the parallels between economic decay, political disappointments and petty criminals, there is nothing soft, or subtle, about it. He should trust his audience more."
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On the plus side, Pitt "is smooth as silk as Jackie," a veteran gang enforcer called upon to set things right after a Mob-protected card game is knocked over. Sharkey adds that "there is an effortlessness here in the way Pitt turns small scenes into defining moments." Scoot McNairy is also "excellent" as a small-time crook, and James Gandolfini channels some of his old "Sopranos" magic as a hit man past his prime.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes that "Killing Them Softly" "has an agreeably scuzzy, small-time feeling" and benefits from Higgins' "pungent idiom." Scott also agrees with Sharkey that "It can be a pleasure to watch [the actors] all work," although he ultimately finds the film "a disappointing job." The film, Scott says, "is sapped of vitality by its own self-conscious, curatorial fastidiousness," and its attempt at contemporary relevance is "desperate" and "misguided."
USA Today's Claudia Puig is more keen on the film, calling it "A clever thriller … with a particularly meaty performance by Brad Pitt." She adds, "Languorous to the point of rambling, the story of double-crossing and vengeance is darkly funny, graphically violent and gorgeously shot." (Greig Fraser is the director of photography.) It's worth seeing "for its sharp dialogue, mesmerizing photography and gritty performances."
REVIEW: Brad Pitt is smooth in 'Killing Them Softly'
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe was also won over by the film in the end (indeed, at the end), despite some over-the-top politicking. He writes, "The conceit borders on the arrogant and often crosses over, yet 'Killing Them Softly' pulls off its reach in the last scene." Burr also praises the cast. McNairy and costar Ben Mendelsohn are "appallingly funny," and Pitt matches his role "like custom-fitted machinery."
Karina Longworth of the LA Weekly, however, finds "Killing Them Softly" unsubtle to a fault. She writes, "It's a movie that shows and then tells, tells and tells again, its vibrant conjuring of contemporary cynicism felled by Dominik's lack of faith in his audience's ability to connect thematic dots." One example is the extensive injection of real newscasts and debates from 2008 as background noise; another is the tendency toward on-the-nose musical cues. Watching the film, Longworth admits, "I wondered how the movie would play with the sound off," since Dominik "has little trouble telling his story visually with depth and potency."
Perhaps next time, he'll try killing them a bit more softly.