By Greg Vellante
Eagle-Tribune Movie Critic
---- — “Killing Them Softly” boasts three great performances: The first two exist in watching Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini as a pair of hit men, and the third is by writer/director Andrew Dominik, who adapted the novel by George C. Higgins into a cool, confident crime drama drenched with a bitter cynicism.
Pitt’s character is strong and confident and ready to get the job done. Gandolfini’s, on the other hand, is about to drown in the deep end of a pool filled with hookers and booze.
These conversations provide some of the best tension-fueled dialogue and flawless delivery to manifest on screen this year. Pitt and Gandolfini convince viewers that these characters really have known each other for a long time, simply put, are brilliant. Embodying violent sociopaths is a tough job, but these two actors seamlessly succeed.
Dominik’s first two films — the shockingly violent character study “Chopper” and the slow-yet-understated “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — revealed the director’s flair for style and storytelling. “Killing Them Softly” is his best work yet.
The film moves at a rigorous pace that sneaks up on the audience; like running on a treadmill while somebody keeps pushing the speed. Conversations are long, drawn out, and masterfully paced so when the unexpected acts of violence and interesting plot turns occur, they feel refreshingly unanticipated.
The minimalism never erupts into maximum chaos. The story keeps its hinges on, with Dominik not relying on a single big payoff to drive his film, but rather the small payoffs of every single scene.
Try not to laugh at the hilarious conversations between two dumb guys (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), who rob a mob-enforced poker game and set off the film’s entire chain of events. It’s hard not to, much like it’s difficult not to find something to love within nearly every frame of “Killing Them Softly.”
The film’s only issue, and a minor one at that, seems to be its excess. With everything Dominik does right, he missteps occasionally with superfluous attempts at style that feel jarring when compared within a movie that is primarily uncompromised starkness.
He also seems to lack subtlety in presenting the movie’s themes, which attack a capitalist mindset in the middle of the 2008 presidential election. A lot of the dialogue covers these topics grandly, yet the film still feels the need to constantly have speeches by Bush and Obama playing on TVs in the background or over the soundtrack. It surely isn’t indirect or ideal, yet this approach could have proven far worse in another director’s hands.
Regardless, “Killing Them Softly” is solid entertainment and a striking commentary blessed with a unique touch by an interesting filmmaker. With great performances and magnificent movement through its every scene, “Killing Them Softly” may not be one of the best American films of the year, but it is certainly one of the best films released this year about the country itself.