Killing Them Softly plays out like a rough draft; watching it makes you feel like a professor grading one of his student’s submissions. You find worth and potential along with one or two things it really wants to get across. But too much gets in the way. There are scenes which drag on into filler territory, parts that fail to engage the audience and, sadly, it all leaves us watching something, as opposed to experiencing it.
The mob/hitman story here is very localized, which does lend some grounded reality. It’s actually refreshing to see mob card games being run in a sub-par household, as opposed to (just) an underground location with space to walk and stand. A very heavy-handed theme is meant to drive home this low-life persona the film just bathes in, even when the scenes take place in a luxury car. The problem, however, is that the message isn’t driven so much as barreled through you like the elders speeding into (and around) the houses from South Park.
A few good stands are assumed by the talented cast who, though usually underutilized, work with what’s available. While Brad Pitt is convincing he isn’t stealing scenes from anyone. If anything, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, portraying embodiments of the aforementioned low-life persona, are the real stars. Much of this is thanks to the fact that, for the first 20-45 minutes, it feels like the movie belongs to them. Pitt isn’t even on-screen for much of the first act and by the time he’s introduced, it’s tough to imagine him having a larger role. He ultimately feels like a smaller piece, meant to carry something that’s just too heavy for his shoulders.
Without a sense of cohesiveness or decisive direction, Killing Them Softly winds up sifting when it should be exploring. Sadly, the extent of its exploration is too forced for what could’ve stood so much better without any of the overdone finger-pointing. If there’s anything the film has to say that it doesn’t repeat more times than a pop song chorus, it’s that projects don’t work without being consistently handled or truly overlooked prior before submission.