As Andrew Dominik's film opened, the credits interspersed with clips from the 2008 presidential election (election coverage that plays as background score throughout the entire film), in a way that is reminiscent of something Godard would attempt in his hey day, my hopes that Killing Them Softly, just the director's third film in a twelve year career, would live up to the rest of his short but rather spectacular oeuvre, was still in full and optimistic bloom. My anticipation that this film would be able to match the intensity of his debut, Chopper, and/or the cinematic lyricism of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was still quite intact, and I was still quite enthusiastic about the whole bloody affair. After about a half hour of a rather ridiculous plot, and even more ridiculous dialogue - all made to show how much Dominik thinks he is Quentin Tarantino, and trust me, Andrew Dominik is no Tarantino - those aforementioned hopes were violently dashed upon the proverbial shore of the cinema wherein I sat and watched.
Now granted, the film is not terrible by any stretch, and it does pick up some once poster boy Brad Pitt finally comes on screen - which incidentally, is about forty minutes in - but the obvious attempt to recreate Tarantino's subtly stunning criminal dialogue from films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, falls dismally flat in the hands of many in the cast. I have not read the book upon which the film is based, George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade, but I have heard nothing but good things about it and it's dialogue. Why it fails here, one can only assume is the failings of Dominik's script. The exception to these failings though, are hit men Pitt and James Gandolfini, both of whom somehow rise above the clunky, rather obvious chatter of the rest of the film. If somehow Dominik could bottle the two scenes between these actors, and stretch that out to feature length, the director could very well have a goddamn masterpiece on his hands. Sadly though, when Pitt and Gandolfini are not on the screen (Pitt gets more face time in the second half of the film, but Gandolfini has only these two scenes to rely on), the film spirals down into a crime epic wannabe. Looks-wise, Dominik does a bang-up job (the film veritably seethes with the mood of impending death), and there is a murder scene (of whom, we shall remain quite tight-lipped here) that will figuratively blow you away, but alas, poor Dominik, we knew ye well.
And as far as those Pitt and Gandolfini moments go, it is kind of worth the price of admission just to see these. I would say maybe just come in a good half hour in. Sure, certain plot threads may not make any sense by missing the beginning, but really, many of them make no sense even seeing the beginning. One scene in particular, where a roomful of mobsters do nothing to stop a pair of obvious in-over-their-head wouldbe robbers, just makes no sense whatsoever. But still, to watch Pitt and Gandolfini play off of each other is a damn fine time to be had by all. Too bad this is the minority, not the majority, of the film. Gandolfini gives a performance, though small as it may be, that is full of tragedy, and the harrowing look in his eyes portray a sadness that only a great actor such as he can pull off. I doubt if it will happen, but a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination should rightfully be in his near future. As for Pitt, the actor, often wrongfully overlooked as a great actor, gives yet another brilliant performance, this time as a hit man with scruples - well, at least some scruples, he is a hit man after all. Yes, Ray Liotta, basically playing an older version of Henry Hill from Goodfellas (perhaps this is indeed a post witness protection Henry Hill), does a fine job here, and Ben Mendolsohn and Scoot McNairy pull off respectable performances, especially admirable considering the contrived Tarantino-wannabe dialogue they are forced to try and pull off. But in the end, it is Pitt and Gandolfini who save the day. Well, almost save the day.