Sunday, December 23, 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012): And the Economic Crash

Killing Them Softly is one of those films that at times seem to have approached greatness.  It never comes close to reaching that destination for the same reason that many films of the same type never reach greatness.  The movie comes near to being swallowed up in its bleak and hopeless outlook.
In the movie, three minor criminals feel that they can outsmart the mob by staging a robbery of a card game where mob leaders are present.  The robbery takes place with relatively few hitches, but nobody in the movie audience is convinced that the robbers will ever get away with it.  One of the robbers, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) almost from the moment the robbery is over feels as if the whole plot is going to fall to pieces and spends the remainder of the movie in a state of paranoia.  Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), his drug addled partner, is only concerned with using the proceeds of the robbery to purchase (and use) his heroin as he knows it is only time before the mob catches up with them.
And the mob does find out very quickly what is going on.  Russell can’t keep his mouth shut and he talks to the wrong people.  Soon the mob’s counsel, an unnamed driver played by Richard Jenkins, has a conversation with an expert hit man by the name of Jackie (Brad Pitt).  After originally hiring on another hit man named Mickey (James Gandolfini), who instead of making plans to conduct a hit ends up blowing great sums of cash on booze and hookers, Jackie decides that he needs to take care of the hits himself.
The time period is 2008 and the location is apparently New Orleans.  In the backdrop, we hear speeches delivered first by President George W. Bush and then President-to-be, Barack Obama.  The volume of these speeches is turned up as the movie progresses, and we never are for sure whether we are hearing the shallow talk of politicians (as Jackie suggests) or an alternative approach to the jaded and desperately unhappy viewpoint of the characters in the movie.  Perhaps the only character in the movie that we can even somewhat care for is Markie (Ray Liotta), the individual that sets up the mob card game that is robbed, and he is beaten so brutally in the film that we understandably know why all he wants is to die quickly.  Russell perhaps gets off the most easily as he ends up back in jail after being busted for drugs.  And Frankie is shot in the head by Jackie only after he begins to believe that Jackie is the one person he can trust.
The film ends with Jackie and the mob counsel sitting in the bar dickering over the price of the hits that Jackie has performed.  While listening to the speech of the newly elected President on television, Jackie spews scorn both on Obama and, going all the way back to our founding fathers, on Thomas Jefferson.
Killing Them Softly is a film with many attributes.  At 97 minutes, the film is short and to the point.  The dialogue, though in the same vein as a film like Pulp Fiction, helps the story along and is never a distraction.  The acting is first rate from everyone in the film.  The setting is stark and befitting for the story.  The story is happily never sentimental.  Despite casting Pitt in a leading role, the film was never designed to be a commercial blockbuster.  And using the mob as a metaphor for the banking industry is apt, and the criticism of a shallow and narrow materialistic culture is just.
Yet for all the good things that can be said about the film, it is not a movie that most audience members will repeatedly want to see.  This isn’t because the film makes us uncomfortable.  Rather, the film is limited in scope as the lessons do not go as deep as the director and writer, Andrew Dominik, may believe.  Unless you juxtapose the message Obama attempted to bring in his speeches to those articulated by Jackie in the film’s conclusion, Dominik’s critique of our capitalistic society provides no alternative solution.  This film tells us we live in a shallow and self-seeking society.  What do we replace it with?
In my opinion, Killing Them Softly fails in the same manner that many near great movies also fail: for example The Wild Bunch, Raging Bull, Trainspotting, The Departed, No Country for Old Men and about every film directed by Quentin Tarantino – ambitious, clever and well acted movies that were intended as an expose of a sick society but contain no other message.  These movies will probably not be watched over and over again except by a small set of superior feeling viewers that flock to joyless comedies.
I give the makers of Killing Them Softly and most of its viewers more credit than this.  I don’t think that these individuals are simply giving in to derision, but the film does at times come close to being one more crass depiction of society.  The classic definition of a cynic is an individual that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The filmmakers of Killing Them Softly only avoid this label by actually seeming to care about what the banking system and our political culture has become. 
December 23, 2012
© Robert S. Miller 2012