Killing Them Softly has been sold thusfar as a cool, action packed Brad Pitt-starring gangster flick but I find that it's more of a serious version of Burn After Reading!
Think about it: here's a film that's more about the politics behind criminal goings-on than it is about the events themselves with a hardly seamless plan gone wrong, Pitt himself, some surprise casualties and a clueless puppetmaster keeping it all in check, kind of. If Joel and Ethan Coen had been in a worse mood when penning the infinitely more cartoonish Burn After Reading, this is probably what we would have ended up with.
As it stands, I'm quite happy we got both.
Killing Them Softly will disappoint those expecting the next gangster epic, there is some action there but it comes in short, out-of-nowhere, effective bursts. Most of the time we follow Brad Pitt's hitman as he goes around trying to organize the appropriate retaliation for a poker game heist set up by one of their own. Basically the idea is that he's reluctant to take care of the whole thing himself as he likes to keep a certain emotional distance between him and those he's "dealing" with. But things don't go quite according to plan as his best bet for a stand-in, James Gandolfini's down-and-out Mickey, seems to have become more of a liability than anything else.
The film's real strength, despite its sharp writing and strong visual style, has to be the performances. Everyone from Gandolfini to Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta and Pitt himself gives surprising depth to their roles and help make this carefully paced plot relentlessly tense and hypnotic throughout. The real revelations here, though, have to be Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as the unfortunate pawns of this movie's worst-plan-ever. They are instantly likeable and you really root for them despite how doomed they clearly are from the get-go. It's a good duo to open the flick with and although they take a back seat to Pitt for most of the rest of it, they make an impact until the very end.
Overall, Killing Them Softly is one of those oddball gangster films that doesn't go for straight-up mindless entertainment but keeps a sharp Tarantino-esque eye there while getting the most of its cast and telling a film noir story that, although its political subtext tends to get a bit too obvious at times, is hard to lose interest in.
Not for everyone but a solid thriller all around regardless.