There are a choice number of films that take violence seriously. We feel the pain of the abused and take no joy in it. A History of Violence was one and to an extent, Saving Private Ryan was another. There are four violent sequences in Killing Them Softly, five if you count the bloodless robberies in the beginning. They aren’t pornographic but they have weight and a dour existential finality about them. They are ugly and gut wrenching. This is what this film gets right. What it gets wrong is to have most of the first hour lacking any star power whatsoever with Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, a hit man with slicked back hair sporting a leather jacket and a badass countenance to rival any wiseguy of film history. His conversations with the great Richard Jenkins’ Driver character reveal much about the nature of human beings and the economy of hits. This isn’t some Tarantino conversation between Tim Roth and his doll, these are practical, strategic meets to determine who lives or who dies and what that will mean for future relations in the mob community and on the street. They are fascinating to listen to. Unfortunately, we only get glimpses of them.
The main part of the first half of the film is the robbery of Marky’s (Ray Liotta) illegal gambling circle by the two of the most reprehensible characters ever to be scripted. One is Frankie (Scoot McNairy) who has what sounds like a Boston accent which is high-pitched, whiny, and given to cracking all the time. The other is Russel (Ben Mendelssohn), an Aussie with a terrible habit for drug use and bestiality with goats and probably dogs (He’s “heard” that they bite). Their conversations are so nasty that I had to turn the TV off. There’s only so much sick I can stomach in one sitting. While they wait in the shadow of their impending fate, they have painfully long drug use sequences with slow motion smoke billowing out of their bloodshot faces.
Along the way, James Gandolfini arrives with rose-colored glasses drinking up a storm. He gives a commanding performance and as always, is a joy to hear and watch despite the despicable things his characters tend to do. It’s a minor role but, as with all Gandolfini’s performances, it leaves an impression.
The rest of the film is a series of the aforementioned violent sequences which left me not wanting to ever see a violent film again. It’s like when you see births happening in silly comedies and then see the actual thing in person or in health class and every part of your body screams “This is real! This is really happening!” For this movie, the violence is as real as it gets. It’s only a pity the earlier scenes weren’t so low on star power or at least star presence to match this quality.