There’s been a lot of talk about how Killing Them Softly is a critique of the Obama administration. It’s easy to see why. Obama might as well receive an “and” credit, given how frequently he appears and how deeply his influence seems to seep into the film. He’s there at the beginning, between moments of static, and he’s there at the end, interrupting exchanges between two primary characters. The film is set during the President’s first campaign, and released just in time for his second. Still, Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Cogan’s Trade feels like a more rounded criticism of the American political system, with Obama serving as a focal point if only because the promise he offers, one of change.
At one point during the film, our leading hit man confronts one of the people on his list. “Not many people get what you have,” he assures the nervous and sweaty young man who seems way over his head. “You have a choice.” Of course, it’s not really a choice – everybody knows that. The young guy knows it, the assassin knows it, and we know. Sure, he can pick between two alternatives, but there are no happy endings here. Dominik’s Killing Them Softly feels like an older, harsher, more bitter Tarantino film, one jaded and numbed by the promise of a false choice. Cynically, it seems to suggest that elections – now and then – are like that offer made in a dive bar.
Sure, there’s technically a choice. But there’s not an opportunity to substantially improve anybody’s position.
Killing Them Softly is set in New Orleans, which has become a rich visual metaphor for the economic collapse and system government failure in America. We learn early on of an illicit poker game, and we learn that the host once ripped off his clientèle. He’s still living in a mobile home. We see glimpses of wealth and prosperity. One potential target stays in an expensive-looking hotel. There’s a construction crew at work. However, we see far more signs of economic collapse and decay.
We join two would-be criminals in a wasteland. There’s vacant lots, and overgrown gardens. Trash swirls in the breeze, possibly the only thing caught in an up-draft. When our professional assassin, Cogan, meets with an old acquaintance in a nice up-town bar, it’s empty. We’re told that there’s only one member of staff on duty, even for what appears to be a relatively posh establishment. Times are tough. At one point, Cogan chastises a colleague for trying to steal a dollar tip he leaves at a coffee shop.
Don’t worry, the American dream is still alive, as it frequently is in these sorts of crime films. As Obama and Bush speak about the American people and their ingenuity and resolve, we join an Australian immigrant who has his own aspirations. He plans to kidnap dogs and sell them so he can earn the money to buy heroin. That’s what his prospects of social advancement are. The sad part is that – as inept and incredibly stupid as the character is – it’s still the most ambitious thing that anybody really does in Killing Them Softly. To describe it as cynical would be an understatement.
The metaphor runs a bit deeper, of course, as many reviewers have commented. When a rich card game is hit by a trio of enthusiastic young go-getters, it leads to “total economic collapse.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The local economy goes into freefall, because people are afraid to spend. You need to get the goons spending again, and in order to do that you need to send a message. That message has nothing to do with merit or what a person deserves, it’s merely a cold gesture calculated to get the cash flowing again.
It’s hardly subtle, but it’s an effective metaphor for exploring the current financial crisis. Cogan’s justifications for his actions – a way of getting liquidity flowing again – sound quite like the justifications used to bail out those reckless financial institutions. To be fair, Cogan never pretends that what he is doing is fair or right. Instead, he argues it’s necessary. The wrong people end up footing the bill for an act of recklessness, all under the pretence of keeping the money moving.
The mob itself is far from the intimidating figure it was in the movies of the eighties or nineties. It appears to be run by pencil-pushers, with a “total corporate mindset.” Cogan, the hired gun, arrives in town to discover that nobody really wants to hold anybody to account for this, because everybody likes everybody else too much. There’s no all-power godfather at work here, no menacing thugs. In the touchy-feely era of the current decade, the two goons administering a beating worry that their victim is going to make them feel bad about knocking the stuffing out of him.
Even Cogan, a well-trained and professional hitman who clearly knows what he’s doing, finds himself negotiating with the mob’s “recession prices.” When he needs assistance for a job, it takes some haggling to get an old friend this cushy number. After everything has been agreed, Cogan’s mob contact clarifies, “He’s flying coach!” For his part, Cogan’s gangster buddy, Mickey, treats the job like one of those all-expenses paid junkets that tabloids report on. It’s easy to imagine a politician or executive charging the hookers and alcohol to an expense account.
The timing of the film – the time it is set and the time it is released – have led a lot of people to argue that it’s a commentary on Obama. After all, it’s set during his 2008 election, and released in time for the 2012 election. However, such a view seems a little myopic. Obama’s rhetoric lends itself to criticism because he promises change. However, the world of Killing Them Softly still looks quite familiar. Things have not changed at all.
However, the movie also takes pains to point out that this isn’t a problem that can be tied to a particular President or a particular moment in American history. There’s no mention of John McCain running to Washington to “negotiate” the deal. Rather, the film suggests, this current state of economic decline is just an expression of a particular American mindset. Cogan mocks Obama’s acceptance speech, but he doesn’t attack the President.
Instead, he goes right back to Thomas Jefferson and lays some pretty astute criticism at the feet of one of the nation’s founding fathers. “America isn’t a country,” Cogan comments to his colleague. “It’s a business.” Such a line doesn’t feel especially anchored in 2008. It doesn’t feel especially anchored in 2012. It’s valid in both times. It was also valid when Oliver Stone produced Wall Street and much earlier than that.
In a way, I actually really like that about Killing Them Softly. I think it helps the film live outside a particular moment when it is set. Rather than serving as a criticism of then or now, it instead uses its setting to make comments that have been valid for decades, and may well continue to be valid. It’s very well constructed, and Dominik has done a tremendous job making a film that uses the current economic climate to comment on the American character.
That said, the use of the political talking heads is just a tiny bit too heavy-handed. It’s enough to hear the comments at the beginning and the end, but it seems like every frame is saturated with Obama or Bush talking about the financial crisis. If those speeches didn’t actually exist, the writing would seem awkward and a little too heavy on the exposition. There’s strange moments where the characters seem to pause their conversations so we can hear snippets of press conferences that they don’t seem too interested in. And, once we’ve heard the key line, they continue on with their dialogue.
That said, I really liked the film’s dialogue. I know that comparing any film’s dialogue to the work of Tarantino feels like a bit of a cop-out, but Dominik’s script reads like a bitter middle-aged version of an early Tarantino script. There’s anger and sex, and mundane life, expressed in a manner that seems almost profound. However, Dominik saps an hint of energy from the dialogue, creating the impression of people just going through the joyless motions. He does an excellent job of channelling Tarantino’s capacity to inter-space brief graphic violence with thoughtful and humanising conversations.
There’s a delightful black humour to the whole thing as well, another element that undoubtedly contributes the countless comparisons made between Dominik and Tarantino. I actually think Dominik is a bit more overt with his comedy, but it works better, because the film is far more cynical. If you drained the humour it would be a pretty bleak piece of film. There’s any number of wonderfully hilarious moments, where the audience laughs harder precisely because they know they shouldn’t be laughing.
Dominik has drawn together an impressive cast. Brad Pitt is a solid lead. Cogan is sharply written as a pragmatist, rather than a jaded romantic. There’s no sense that Cogan has a deeply-hidden code of honour. The closest we see to that is his kindness towards Mickey, but even that doesn’t seem foolishly noble. Cogan is a very stoic and practical individual, and Pitt plays him as mostly introverted. It isn’t until the final scene that we see what’s going on inside his head.
Pitt is ably supported by a fine cast. Richard Jenkins plays his mob handler, who doesn’t seem too far removed from his role in Cabin in the Woods. James Gandolfini is great in a small role as Mickey, Cogan’s old colleague. Ray Liotta has a nice part as a local gangster. Ben Mendelsohn has a nice small role as the would-be entrepreneur planning on turning dog poop into smack into gold. everybody works well with the dialogue they’re given.
Killing Them Softly is a superb little film, and one highly recommended. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s perceived “timeliness”, but it’s a thoughtful piece of work that would feel well-observed at any time. The political interjections are occasionally a bit forced, but it’s otherwise a well-put together crime thriller with a few very sharp observations.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Andrew Dominik, Barack Obama, brad pitt, Cogan, Cogan's Trade, film, George V Higgins, james gandolfini, John McCain, Killing Them Softly, Movie, New Orleans, non-review review, obama, Obama administration, review, Scoot McNairy, United States