If Killing Them Softly were directed by Antonioni or Godard or Scorcese or Altman or Cronenberg or someone who people expect multi-layered movies from, people would be calling KTS a masterpiece. Something like "A crime drama as a crime drama has never been shot before, like a cross between 300, Pulp Fiction, and Goodfellas. Only a master could make something that's been done so many times so refreshing." It'd have a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Instead it's directed by a guy with two previous movies to his credit, and one is extremely slow. So Killing Them Softly has a 78% RT score (and only a 68% with "top" critics).
That's not even the important part about the movie. I think it's unique for its genre, sure. But what I give it kudos for is being a parabole for 2008's Financial Crisis (note, that stands for "Subprime Mortgage Crisis"). Not everyone gets this. Check out these top critic comments.
"The recessionary context is a bit overdone – too many clips of George W. Bush and President Obama delivering pronouncements – and the conceit that crime is a business like any other business is timeworn. Also, the film’s violence quotient is, I think, a notch too high for its purposes." - Peter Rainer
"Indeed, the picture cynically and over-insistently foregrounds the economic crisis throughout, updating the setting of George V. Higgins' 1974 Boston-set novel, "Cogan's Trade," to Louisiana in the weeks preceding the 2008 presidential election. Lest one miss the tale's topical import, TV screens and radios are continuously blaring speeches by President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama, full of false hope and lofty talk of choices and consequences, repeatedly suggesting that the era's financial gloom and air of general malaise have trickled down even to America's scuzziest back alleys edit." - Justin Chang
"Like its source material, the movie is stylish, profane, intelligent, and eminently diverting. But as much as it is a delight that Dominik has disinterred Higgins's work, it is a mild disappointment that the result is not more substantial. The director's previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was among the most underrated of the last decade: as rich and evocative an elegy of America's outlaw era—and the movies it inspired—as any since Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. (And, no, I don't imagine it is a coincidence that one was directed by an Australian and the other by an Italian.)
"Killing Them Softly, by contrast, is sly and sharp, yet somehow slender—more cinematic short story than novel. An aging bottom-feeder (Vincent Curatola) hires two younger ones (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) to hit a card game, with the expectation that the game's proprietor (Ray Liotta) will be the one to take the fall. But this expectation is not met, and violent chastisements inevitably ensue. These are administered, at the behest of a mild-mannered mob cutout (Richard Jenkins), by an enigmatic gun for hire (Brad Pitt) and his supplementary muscle (James Gandolfini).
"And that's pretty much all there is to it.
"...Dominik overreaches somewhat in his bid for topicality. Smatterings of political speech—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Hank Paulson—are overheard frequently throughout the movie. And though they set up a worthy punch line (one that self-consciously echoes the opening of Blood Simple), their deployment could have been pared down considerably." - Christopher Orr
"The facile point, I think, is that organized crime in America is troubled, just like the rest of the economy with a business slowdown and a growing recession." - Roger Ebert
"Acting as a spice rub over the entire picture is the 2008 financial crisis and bailout. Talk radio and cable news are sprinkled throughout the film, adding a nice flavor that wisely doesn’t take too much attention away from the meat of the film. If one wanted to, I’m sure you could nod off on your couch trying to figure out if Brad Pitt represented Bush or if Richard Jenkins was the banking lobby, but I don’t think (or, at least, I certainly don’t hope) that’s the point. It’s an echo of the greater, troubled world but the “corrections” in this small crime operation have enough resonance for grander implications without calling for the fuss of literal analogies." - Jordan Hoffman
There is one desperate, misguided attempt to drag the story toward some kind of contemporary relevance. Even though the cars, the attitudes and the overall griminess of the production design evoke a bygone era, “Killing Them Softly” unfolds at a specific moment in the recent past, namely the autumn of 2008, when the American financial system spun into crisis in the climactic weeks of the presidential campaign. The voices of George W. Bush, Henry Paulson and Barack Obama float into the action from televisions and radios, occasionally inspiring comments from the characters.
It’s a clumsy device, a feint toward significance that nothing else in the movie earns. Perhaps the bankers and speculators who ruined the economy are linked in some way to the punks and lowlifes who ruin themselves, and maybe Cogan is the allegorical double of Ben Bernanke. Anything is possible, since the movie is more concerned with conjuring an aura of meaningfulness than with actually meaning anything.
In the last scene Mr. Obama’s victory speech provokes a cynical tirade from Cogan, who scoffs, in a carefully nonpartisan fashion, at the president-elect’s idealism. “America isn’t a country; it’s a business,” this thoughtful killer declares, turning to one of his colleagues. “Now give me my money.” - A.O. Scott
*(Stephen Witty got it. And Zach Baron says things I agree with and like.).
Director: Andrew Dominik
Kid Rock: Brad Pitt
Amuses me a lot: Richard Jenkins
Dude is so good in this and Animal Kingdom but so creepy: Ben Mendelsohn
Best Supporting Actor nod?: James Gandolfini
I felt really bad for him the entire time: Ray Liotta
Great name: Scoot McNairy
Has the same expression as a weeble wobble: Slaine
Hi, bye: Sam Sheppard
Bet ya he wishes he would have gone in for coffee: Vincent Curatola
What It's Good For:
-bold stylistic and structural decisions so the movie becomes a mashing of modernism and surrealism
-giving a bleak view of the modern American spirit
-being an insane flurry following Dominick's 160-minute's of jabbing in Jesse James
-taking root in your brain while you're watching it so that after you're done watching it you continue to think about it and see images from it
-one of the best movies of 2012
-reminding me of Drive
-being misunderstood and dismissed
-showing writers and filmmakers how to update what could have been a typical genre-piece
-it'll gain a cult following that overhypes it and people see it and are disappointed because of the overhyping
-too slow for some people
-some people will think the final speech is too on-point and think it's hammering home the point of the movie but it really isn't and the point of the movie is similar but much grander and this final speech is necessary to define who exactly Jackie Cogan is, but it's not a summation of the purpose of the movie
-people may think it's typical genre-fare
-there are only two females with screen time and one is a hooker and the other is only ever seen in the background, and this could be viewed as a weakness, but it could also be viewed as commentary
I know I've had this happen, and I have friends who have had this happen, and I have talked with strangers about this happening. I'm pretty sure it's a common thing we all go through. What am I talking about?
This: it's really easy to listen to someone else's problem and understand it and know exactly what to tell them to do, and then it's really, really, really confusing and weird and impossible to understand your own problems, much less know what to do.
Have you ever been in that situation? (If you're curious why this happens, it has to do with proximity. Think about football. There's a difference between being down on the field and watching from the owner's box. When you're in the box, you can see where every player is, how they're moving, how the play is unfolding. When you're on the field, you can see the finer details, what's immediately in front of you, you can hear things, you can smell and taste and feel the play. But you may not see the guy running at you from the right side because you're looking at the guy being blocked on your left. BAM. The people in the owner's box could see this. So could they have told you what to do? Sure. But if they had been in your place, would they have known what to do? Probably not.
Well. We're Americans. It's probably hard for us to understand our problems and attitudes, much less know what to do about them.
Andrew Dominick is from New Zealand. He may not know everything that's going on and gone on in America, but he's aware of our story, he knows us, our problems, and he has the understanding only an outsider can have. Is he maybe generalizing a little bit? Sure. Can we be a little angry at him for what he says? Sure. But does that mean he isn't right? No.
I think he's right.
"What is he right about?"
I'm glad you asked.
Brad Pitt's character in Killing Them Softly isn't just "Jackie Cogan". He isn't just a hitman who is being affected by the recession. With that final speech, Jackie Cogan is announcing himself as "The American Spirit". And believe you me, Jordan Hoffman, the literal analogies don't stop there.
Andrew Dominick took a book and made it into a movie. There's nothing special about that. The thing to pay attention to are the changes made. The book in question, Cogan's Trade, was set in 1974. It had nothing to do with the 2008 election or the Financial Crisis. It had to do with a card game, guys robbing a card game, and the guy killing the guys who robbed the card game. This is when we ask "why?"
So let's go to the man himself. Oh Andrew, shine a little light on this inquiry of mine:
“...as I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling -- and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation. It just seemed to have something that you couldn’t ignore,” said Dominik. He also cited that it was the genre of a crime film that allowed him to tell this tale, explaining that “I always feel that crime films are about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only. I always think in some ways the crime film is the most honest American film, because it portrays Americans as I experience them. Particularly in Hollywood, people are very concerned with money,” said Dominik. Though he seems compelled to assure us he’s certainly not without his own financial woes, stating “At the time I was very concerned with money, because I needed to make some money,” said Dominik. Though as for the clips themselves, Dominik says “The film’s not about Obama, it’s about a crisis in the economy, and the people who have to clean it up. I thought it was a contemporary story.”
“I think if we look back on our favorite films, there’s always something going on beneath them that isn’t exactly in your face. It was an interesting way of looking at the economic crisis, instead of just going straight to the financial crisis."
We've confirmed the movie was written with the Financial Crisis in mind. Jackie is The American Spirit. We should also clarify the use of speeches by Bush, media discussion on the economic problems, and Obama. These things aren't there to remind us about the economic meltdown in order to demonstrate how even mobsters and petty crooks are affected. They're there for two reasons:
1. To set-up the final speech and the final line
2. To serve as a connection between the narrative that's unfolding and the Financial Crisis that was unfolding
Think about it. Without those speeches, there'd be nothing else in the movie to connect the film to the Financial Crisis (without adding some other way). "They didn't have to use SO MANY speeches. It was a little heavy. I got it with the first speech." Ah, but...if you really look, there's a progression between the political development and the development of the crime narrative. I'd need to own the movie in order to really describe, in accurate detail, the relationship. But keep this in mind: the Financial Crisis hit the fan at the end of 2008. It built up throughout 2007. The first half of 2008 was worse, and then the fall and winter of 2008 was when the Dow Jones crumbled. If you take the 10 worst days in the history of the Dow Jones, FIVE occurred in the last half of 2008. 2009 continued the decline. And since then the market has improved. But that has nothing to do with the movie. Well, it sort of does. And that's the compliment, I think, but more on that in a bit.
So the movie takes place when the Financial Crisis had its largest impact on America. We're watching a recreation of the Financial Crisis, a microcosm of it, and the impact it had, via the maneuvers of mobsters, hitmen, petty crooks, and wannabes with nothing else.
I'm going there, Jordan Hoffman. Like a fairy tale (and I'm going to quote Dominick again, "...the reason fairy tales work is because they counter all concerns in terms of a fantasy. So maybe in a genre film, it’s like a spoonful of sugar -- it's one step removed. So you can enjoy it without really thinking about it. It can go in or not, depending on how much attention the viewer is paying.”) or the fairy tale's cousin, the parable, all the characters represent something. Like a princess represents Chastity and Kindness. The Prince: Heroism and Valor. The Witch: Greed (and ugliness).
Thus, each character in Killing Them Softly is representative of someone from the Financial Crisis.
Who is who, then?
-Richard Jenkins: American Government
-The gangsters/mobsters/rich dudes at the poker game: the American 1%
-Ray Liotta: the heads of the banks and financial firms (like Lehman Bros)
-Scoot and Ben and Squirrel/Vincent: those banks and financial firms who knew what was going on, knew things were bad, but wanted the money so exacerbated the Subprime Mortgage Crisis
-James Gandolfini: the Americans affected by the crisis (those who lost their houses, lost their jobs, lost their marriages, lost their sobriety and sanity)
-Sam Sheppard/Dillon: America before the financial crisis, and the America that doesn't survive the financial crisis
-Slaine/Kelly: Americans who are the most desperate (leave the dollar on the table, come on)
-Brad Pitt/Cogan: the America that survives, unblinking, determined
You can then look at the interaction in the movie in terms of how these groups interacted during the crisis. Or how Dominik saw them interacting. And maybe these avatars are PERFECT representations of each party, but they're parable characters, fairy tale characters, portraying Andrew Dominik's view of America and the Financial Crisis.
For example: Pitt's final speech "This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh! I'm livin in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country, it's just a buisness... now fuckin pay me!"
What I take from this: as Dominik sees it, the prevailing attitude isn't, "Let's heal the country", but each person wants to get paid so they can continue their pursuit of their American Dream. It's the idea, then, that Americans aren't working together toward one goal, but each has hers or his own mission. And the fuel to get there is money. It is the bedrock of our institutions. Plenty of people survived the Financial Crisis just fine, it's true. But other people weren't so lucky, and the stress of money cracked families, broke self-esteems, ended lives, led ants to devour the raisins in the sun so that even dreams which were shriveling lost what little potential energy that remained.
We don't know WHY Jackie needs the money. But we Americans know he needs it.
"That's stupid. People need money all over the world!" Yeah, that's true. But, keep in mind, the rest of the world sees Americans as being money obsessed and materialistic. More so than other countries in the world. And this movie is based on Dominick's perception of Americans.
It's not just Jackie that thinks he needs the money, who wants the money. It's all of us, and that's another thing Jackie represents.
Think back to the build-up to the 2012 Presidential Election. Number #1 concern? Economy, Economy, Economy. We all want to be making more money. Right? Are you content? Maybe you are. But I'm sure you know someone who is still struggling right now, who is growing ever more unhappy and confused by a lack of opportunities. If you don't, you're probably pretty well-off and live in a community that s similarly well-off. I recommend traveling. If you are one of those people who continues to feel held down, I also recommend traveling. "I DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY ASSHOLE! HOW DO YOU EXPECT ME TO TRAVEL!?" Fine, don't travel physically. But travel mentally, travel spiritually. And I hope you can realize that maybe you're not where you want to be, but you have it better than some other people. That doesn't mean you should feel content. It just means you shouldn't feel so awful, if indeed you do feel awful. In the book Economics of Happiness, researchers determined people who compare themselves to people who have more money or "better" lives than them are WAY LESS HAPPY than those who compare themselves to people who have less money or have seriously bad things going on. Like... compare how much you can spend at dinner and how much Bill Gates can spend at dinner. Then compare your life to someone who is a Prisoner of War. You don't have it so bad, do you? Unless you're being tortured to death, or you're starving and have no money and your children are starving and you can't afford food for any of you, there's probably SOMEONE who is in a worst position than you. The end of your relationship sucks, definitely, but could your life be in a worse place than that? Are you lucky that something like that is your biggest problem?
While it's sort of insulting to summarize America with the line "Now fucking pay me", we should look at the entirety of Jackie's character.
He's the smartest person in the movie. He's the most effective person in the movie. He's the best dressed person in the movie. He's the best looking guy in the movie (if we're judging by hygiene and athleticism). He's the most confident guy in the movie. He's concerned about others. He's polite. And he does his job. He wants what he earned. When you look at it that way, Dominick is being very complimentary in his view of "The American Spirit", I think. The "Now fucking pay me" isn't this...condemnation of Americans. It's just...at the end of the day, despite everything else, we value our time and effort and value. Can you blame Jackie for wanting to get paid? This is what people have been saying to Obama since he took office. Maybe not verbatim, but "economy" has been the major concern of the public since 2008.
Your answer to that question, "Can you blame Jackie," might vary, depending on what country you're from.
Did I Like it:
Yes. And my appreciation of it has grown as it's settled in my head. The direction amazed me as I was watching it. Same with Gandolfini. So there were moments and elements that were constantly keeping me interested and earning my admiration, but the movie as a WHOLE hadn't sunk in. It has, now. And let me say: the blu-ray is already sitting in my Amazon cart (no, there's not a release date yet).
I think it will gain momentum over the years.
I think people will continue to hate on it.
I think the final line is right up there with Friends with Kids.
Liotta getting beat up reminded me of the Sugar Ray fight in Raging Bull. It's how Dominick shot scenes like that, and Ben high on heroine, and the sensory fuck-up that begins the movie, that fascinate me.
People are complaining about the song "Heroine" playing as Ben gets high on heroine. Is this really that bad?
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