“Killing Them Softly”
This one is a clunker. Brad Pitt is the big-name attraction, but he just seems to be sleepwalking through it. He plays a hit man named Jackie, who’s supposed to looks all tough and grungy, but it’s difficult to make this former model look bad now matter how much you dress him down. He does cuss a lot and he does actually fire a gun, but the slo-mo and the camera cut-aways make it seem more like a promotional video than a real “hit.”
His main conversation partner is Richard Jenkins, playing Driver, the contractor’s representative, who also is called upon to do gritty and mean, but he comes across more like some crooked accountant caught with his scruples down. Not very much liveliness there, either, just an ordinary-looking guy sitting in a sleazy bar talking about putting contracts out on people.
Yes, all the scenes are done in abandoned parking lots, blighted neighborhoods, messy construction sites, under bridges, inside old automobiles, or in trash-strewn parking lots. This is supposed to be “film noir”? The title comes from Jackie explaining that if he’s going to eliminate someone, he wants it to be as painless as possible for them. There’s no reason for them to suffer too much. He said he likes to kill them softly. As if that’s his version of being a compassionate killer.
Yes, we’re trying to duplicate the delicate atmosphere of “Pulp Fiction,” where the all-too-human bad guys were self-consciously ironic about their violence, and carried with them a caustic kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that was arrestingly creative for its time, but has been much copied since, usually unsuccessfully. There’s nothing cute or funny about this one.
The plot, such as there is, revolves around a high-stakes, illegal poker game, sponsored by a sleazeball named Markie (Ray Liotta) who has the bright idea of hiring thugs to come in and rob his own game. He almost gets away with it, until one night he’s laughing about it with some somber-faced cohorts, and now the word is out on the street. So then this pair of wannabe street operators decide that if they could hit the same game again, everybody is going to blame Markie, and they’ll have the money without needing to worry about who’s coming after them. It almost works, but when it becomes evident to “the players” that the 2nd time wasn’t Markie, now the small-time operators are in big trouble, and they know it.
Jackie decides to bring in an out-of-town hit man, his old friend Mickey (James Gandolfini), who’s obviously become a drunk, wasting all his time on hookers and all his energy on feeling sorry for himself. He’s one of the saddest and most pathetic figures in contemporary cinema. So Jackie simply decides that if you want a job done right, you just do it yourself.
But wait, who is there to root for among this sad-sack collection of users, manipulators, crooks, and assassins? No one. And, in the words of the old Beatles song, as you wipe your hands of the dirt walking from the grave, no one was saved. “All the Lonely People, where do they all come from? All the Lonely People, where do they all belong?”
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas