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Let’s Review Killing Them Softly!

As the Culture Blues Intern, it is my duty to record the post-screening discussions of my editors, so that they're not required to "sell out" and write actual cogent criticism.

Expect very little of this.

Jeremiah is on the couch zoning out during a Sons of Anarchy commercial break, eyes glazed over, mouth agape, when an ad for Killing Them Softly labels it an “electrifying thriller” via critic quotes. Jeff is walking through the lounge, carrying a steaming mug of hot chocolate. He stops in his tracks.

Jeff Hart:  Whoa, that doesn’t sound like the movie I saw.

Jeremiah is jarred from his daydreaming.

Jeremiah White:  Huh?

Jeff Hart:  The ad wizards at The Weinstein Company have adopted a misleading ad campaign for Andrew Dominik’s dark, weird little movie.

Jeremiah White:  Yeah, I saw that. I guess they expect better results if they build Brad Pitt up as some kind of underworld superhero rather than a guy who shows up a third of the way through the movie and spends most of the runtime trying to stay out of the action.

Jeff Hart:  It may not focus on him that heavily, but he does deliver an awesome speech that sums up the movie’s worldview pretty well. Like, maybe the best speech in a movie this year.

Jeremiah White:  That’s a great moment. It might even be electrifying, but Killing Them Softly is no thriller. Defining what it is proves a lot harder than saying what it isn’t, but this is definitely a great start to prestige season.

Jeff Hart:  One of its strengths is that it refuses to be a stereotypical crime movie. It’s devoid of drama and tension. It’s light on plot. In his latest batshit review over at the NY Observer, Rex Reed describes Killing 'Em as something Guy Ritchie would rubber-stamp. He's wrong, of course. The film doesn't have Ritchie's manic energy or bendy plot machinations. It's about as straight forward as it gets.

Jeremiah White:  It’s basically a bleak comedy about desperate, depressed people in tough economic times. They just happen to be criminals. Dominik’s decision to set the action against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election and Wall Street’s collapse imbues his grimy little caper with real world relevance, even if he does lay the talk radio on a little thick to establish the story’s relation to recent history.

Jeff Hart:  Yeah, that the whole criminal endeavor is a metaphor for the bailout - with the little people getting crushed and business as usual resuming for the big wigs - is maybe a bit on the nose, but it's a metaphor that I liked so I didn't much mind. And despite how focused he is on driving home his message, Dominik sure spends a lot of time letting his actors stretch their legs. There are long, brilliant scenes of Pitt and James Gandolfini just shooting the shit. And this is a thriller? Whatever, it works.

Jeremiah White:  The digressive structure certainly wouldn’t work so well if the cast wasn’t excellent. Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt play very different men who form an interesting bond based on a sense of professionalism. Ben Mendelsohn’s dog-stealing Australian scumbag is a consistent source of laughs. Gandolfini is only in a few scenes, and is totally inconsequential to the plot, but his off-the-rails hitman is an imposing presence.

Jeff Hart:  There are some weird stylistic choices made by Dominik, particularly a heroin-trip that just goes on forever and a vicious beating that gets close to pointlessly excessive. Even with those flaws, this film, following up on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I loved, puts Dominik firmly on my list of must-see directors.

Jeremiah White:  The critical response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, but all of the negative reviews seem rooted in the idea that Killing Them Softly is too cynical. I’m not sure when film critics became such doe-eyed optimists, but the tone struck me as perfect for a time when the global economy is in shambles and Armageddon seems inevitable. Why not laugh a little while the world burns?

Jeff Hart:   I guess maybe it's too soon to start lampooning Obama's hope and change rhetoric for some. This is a massive, blanket assumption, but I'd be willing to bet that the critics that call Killing Them Softly cynical are the kind of people that don't get the point of Occupy Wall Street. Anything else?

Jeremiah White:  Yup. One time!

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