Indy film has lots of problems, but a good cast

By Gary Clift

Don’t let them tell you we don’t ever see any “independent” movies at the local twelve-plex. This weekend one auditorium there was given over to showings of “Killing Them Softly,” which will answer just about any description of the genre.

It is obscure. It was written and directed by one man who has a non-commercial history of directing screenplays he’s written, most recently “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” six years ago.

“Killing Them Softly” is almost all talking, though its subject is professional crime. This makes appearing in it to be a sort of nostalgic treat for name actors; they probably have some experience doing dramatic monologues and two character “scenes” and being praised for their successes. The movie has very little action.

It was made for relatively little money. Most of the sets are the inside of cars, hotel rooms, and cocktail lounges. It was obviously made under the influence of indy king Quentin Tarrantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Its closing sentiment, offered as an excuse for lots of radio and t.v. broadcasts played in the soundtrack’s background, seems likely inspired by “Blood Simple,” the Coen brother’s early crime drama.

Oh. And “Killing Them Softly” is self-serving to the extent of being dull. It is difficult to imagine anyone honestly watching it all the way through without reminding themselves to focus.

To the movie’s credit, it does have a stellar cast including Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, and James Gandolfini. Gandolfini steals the show, but his character is completely unnecessary to the plot, such as it is.

It is easy to imagine that director and writer Andrew Domnick realized at some point that the movie wasn’t going to be feature length, and that he consequently added the two scenes with the former star of TV’s “The Sopranos.” Sam Shepard also makes a very brief appearance, but I’m not sure we even today want to count him as an actor.

The movie has trouble with its point of view, too, as do a lot of indy films. Is the movie about Pitt? Then why doesn’t his character appear until two-fifths of the way into the story? Let’s say “Killing Them Softly” is actually about events set off by a crime. A dry-cleaner called “Squirrel” asks a young friend to find another man for a job. They are to rob a long-running standing card game run by Marky (Liotta).

After some distracting and totally unnecessary business about the personality of the second man, an Aussie junkie, we get to the high-jacking, which goes fairly smoothly. But as Marky has admitted having his own game high-jacked once before, the criminal powers that be want him to be beaten and eventually killed. Who these powers are and how they figure in events, I was never sure.

So Pitt arrives and has the first of his three or four confabs with Jenkins’s prissier character. Jenkins is hiring Pitt (in place of “Dylan,” a character who never appears) to find out who did the high-jacking and deal with them. Pitt subcontracts with Gandolfini’s character, a drunk with a taste for hookers, who proves to be useless as a hit man.

Luck gives Pitt’s character the names of the dry cleaner and his young associates. One of them is arrested by the police, probably coincidentally. But it may be that Pitt arranges the arrest. He tells us he is going to arrange Gandolfini’s.

There are four brief scenes which might be called “action” scenes. They aren’t very interesting. But they beat the talking scenes. And the TV and radio broadcast snippets. They’re like action scenes in, you know, indy movies. Heaven keep us from them.

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