It's a tough world out there. Ask any start-up businessman and he'll tell you that it's tough to just keep the doors open, much less make a profit. Sure, maybe things are improving bit by bit, but entrepreneurs still have to deal with listless employees while shuffling paperwork and juggling new government requirements. Oh, that and keeping the customers happy too.
Consider Markie, who runs an illicit high-stakes poker room. It's a nice enough living as far as it goes, but just because he can dodge all those aforementioned government regulations doesn't mean the monetary margins are great. So one night he decides to hire a couple of thugs to rob his own operation, stealing cash from his well-heeled clients. 'Course, you can't keep a secret like that forever; not in a people-centric business like his.
Enter Johnny "Squirrel" Amato, the type of underworld character who's always eager to pounce on entrepreneurial misfortune. He knows that should the game get cracked again, Markie will likely get fingered for it. And this presents something of a unique opportunity for Squirrel: to plunder the parlor himself, then happily count the money while watching the blame settle on Markie.
Things could get a little rough for Markie in the aftermath, Squirrel knows that. Someone may decide to, ahem, liquidate Markie's assets. But that's the risk of getting into this sort of business, right?
'Course, if something goes wrong with the job, Squirrel's own fledgling business could take a hit or two. If the wrong people talk to the wrong people … well, some "corporate" bigwigs might send down a hatchet man or two. And they might literally have hatchets.
Almost every guy with a speaking part is involved in the criminal underworld, and we quickly learn that there is no honor among thieves. So we don't have a whole lot to work with here.
But then Killing Them Softly really isn't interested in giving us characters we can root for. This is no romanticized crime fable with a beneficent fairy godfather; it's a graphic depiction of what a life of crime might really look like. And, as such, it's an excruciatingly effective cautionary tale that tells us to never, ever, ever get into this line of work.
It's also a pretty heady movie in its own crass and violent way, juxtaposing, oddly, this dank and dreadful world with the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Director Andrew Dominick (who also wrote the screenplay) suggests that the country's economic woes helped foster this desperate underworld and tells us, fairly explicitly, that there's a deep disconnect between our country's sometime soaring rhetoric of being "one people" and the splintered reality found in the streets.
"America's not a country," says Jackie, one of those dreaded hatchet men. "It's a business." And in Killing Them Softly, there's very little place for compassion in business. And so, in a roundabout way, a sliver of a positive theme hits home: The idea that sometimes our actions fall short of our ideals. The reminder that I could and should be doing more to make the world a better place.
Mickey talks a great deal about his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him. So some might say it's ironic that he spends his days and nights with a steady stream of prostitutes. We see him in a room with one, and he graphically recalls sexual encounters with another. Audiences see a prostitute's bare backside as she asks someone to zip up her dress. He refuses. Mickey doles out a steady stream of insults referencing her skill and parts of her private anatomy.
Mickey's hardly alone in hiring prostitutes. Several men make mention of doing the same (often using crass and graphic language). Rough jokes are traded about sexual organs and homosexual sex in the confines of prison. There's the intimation that one man has had bestial sex. (He warns against it for pragmatic reasons.)
"Have you ever had a hamburger?" star Brad Pitt (who plays Jackie) asked MTV. "Have you seen how they butcher cows? It's barbaric, it's horrendous, it's very violent. This is the world we live in, so I see it as absolutely important to film."
Body for body, the kill count in Killing Them Softly is not even in the same league as, say, Skyfall or The Hunger Games. But the three people who die, die horribly. These are no video game-style shootouts; they're bloody, painful executions of people who desperately want to draw another breath.
Their killers? Well, they're just doing a job. So the kills here are both brutal and surgical. The suffering, which we see a lot of, is dismissed as the byproduct of a business transaction.
One man is gunned down by a shotgun blast. He falls behind a car, but the murderer hears a sob. So he walks over and sees (as do we) his victim wallowing in his own blood, weeping and trying to crawl away. Another blast terminates his efforts.
A second man expires after taking five or six bullets to the head. His blood cascades across a car.
A third guy, also in a car, is gunned down at an intersection. The kill is shown in slow motion—bullets piercing the windows and exploding through his head as he screams silently. Five shots are fired in this slo-mo sequence, and the man's car coasts into traffic where it's hit and smashed. (The now dead man's head smacks and cracks the windshield.)
But none of these scenes are the worst we see. Early on, a man is nearly beaten to death. He's punched several times in the face, leaving his jaw broken and a beard of blood coating his chin. (He weeps in pain.) He's punched several times in the gut. (He vomits twice.) He's knocked unconscious, after which his attackers kick him several times and leave him in the rain.
People are held at gunpoint. A man is comically roughed up and thrown through a backdoor and off a porch. A man sets a car on fire; it explodes and shoots backward, hitting him and sending him flying. We learn that Mickey gets into a fight with a prostitute. (He is sent to prison for what he does to her.) There's a discussion about a woman who talked about killing herself (and possibly did).
Crude or Profane Language
More than 200 f-words are flung at the screen during this 97-minute film. The s-word is said close to 40 times. Jesus' name is abused more than 20 times. Other profanities include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑." There are several crude-to-obscene terms for various body parts.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Russell (one of the guys Squirrel hires to do the robbery) would love to become a big-time drug dealer, but he can't seem to stop using his own merchandise. He's shown shooting up, and we see the impact it has on his mind: He fades into a state of bliss and falls asleep even as his cohort Frankie tries to talk to him. And, impaired, he blabs too much about the job. He keeps his drug stash in a bus station locker, and he staggers into the building (obviously high) to retrieve it, where he's busted by police.
Mickey, meanwhile, has a serious drinking problem. He downs two martinis and, while waiting for a third, quaffs Jackie's beer. He's shown with some sort of cocktail in his hand almost every time he's onscreen, and Jackie both gently cautions and sternly admonishes him to stop drinking when he's supposed to be working.
Important meetings take place in bars, where characters drink beers and mixed drinks. Nearly everyone smokes with some regularity. Jackie pops a handful of pills.
Other Negative Elements
Folks gamble. In an effort to earn enough money to buy drugs for his fledgling "business," Russell swipes purebred dogs and resells them in another state.
He details a trip he made (in a stolen car) with several such dogs (which we see a snippet of in flashback), in which the pooches were constantly defecating, urinating and passing gas in the car. The dognappers couldn't open the windows, which we see are smeared with who-knows-what.
Someone derogatorily compares his employers and "retarded children."
Killing Them Softly is an effective bit of storytelling—provocative and well-acted. It also has enough content in it that, had a similar movie been released 50 years ago, it would've melted the eyeballs of pretty much everyone who saw it.
Family friendly? No. In fact, this movie isn't any kind of friendly—and it's not intended to be. It grabs viewers by the throat, shoves their faces in a pile of muck and blood and screams, "See how awful this all is?! See?!"