Killing Them Softly is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime but tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests metaphorically the connection between government and organized crime, implying that the executive branch is an organization that gets rich off the vices of others, controls public opinion by casting blame on someone known to be innocent, and assassinates anyone who gets in its way. The movie suggests that America is nothing but a floating poker game.
In the film, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) — clearly designed to represent Bush — runs a literal floating poker game. He has figured out a way to set up a robbery of the game, pocket the money, and make his cronies — clearly designed to represent corporate America — believe that someone else has stolen the cash. Later he brags about what he did, but since the game is back in play and the money is flowing again, everyone laughs and Trattman gets a bye — this time.
But this isn't an ordinary poker game. Everyone at the table is making money, and it's controlled by bosses who are represented by a button-up businessman (Richard Jenkins) who is so straight that he cringes when someone lights up a cigarette in his car.
A few months later Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a dry cleaning magnate and low-level criminal, figures that if he sends in some of his own flunkies to steal the cash this time, everyone will assume that Trattman did it again, and Trattman will get the blame. Squirrel knows that Trattman will get killed for it this time, but he figures that's OK because, after all, Trattman did it before; it's just a delayed punishment.
Trattman does indeed get the blame, even though he tries to prevent the robbery. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to "interrogate" Trattman, get the names of everyone involved, and eventually dispatch the punishment. It is a graphic, brutal interrogation, and in the end Jackie is convinced that Trattman is innocent this time. But truth isn't important; consumer confidence is. "It doesn't matter whether he did it," the messenger (Richard Jenkins) explains. "He's responsible for it. We need a fall guy for the public angle."
I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people.
President Bush's words echo this criminal's perspective. "America's financial problem is complex," he explains on TV. “Confidence in our financial system is essential." In fact, throughout the film, TVs and radios are strategically placed to play snippets of Bush discussing the financial meltdown of 2008. We hear the voice of a Bush official saying, "This isn't what we want to do, but it's what we must do to restore confidence in the US economy." And lest we fail to realize that Bush is the culprit, references are made to "the rush into Iraq on election eve" and "There must be consequences."
Killing Them Softly tries to be artistically and philosophically important. Ever since the artistically dense Tree of Life was given an Oscar nomination last year, Hollywood filmmakers have felt the mandate to make metaphorically rich films. I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people. And it is getting great reviews. I guess the mainstream critics will praise anything that blames Bush.
The title is an allusion to the Roberta Flack song Killing Them Softly, in which a young girl is moved to tears by the lyrics of a song that seem to tell her own story, just as this movie purports to tell Bush's story. But in the film, the phrase has its own meaning. Jackie tells the messenger, "I like to kill them from a distance. Up close they cry and beg and piss themselves. It gets emotional and messy."
And he's right. The violence in this film is close up and brutal, and the victims do cry and beg. It's ugly. There is nothing soft about the hitman. Moreover, there is nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and there are virtually no women, except for one quick scene with a prostitute. All the characters care about or talk about is getting physical pleasure from drinking, heavy smoking, drugs, and prostitutes.
As much as it tries to be an artsy message movie, Killing Them Softly is little more than a garden-variety hitman movie, long on blood and short on character. Despite its heavy-handed metaphors, arty special effects, jazzy music, and stellar acting, the story is barely interesting and entirely predictable.
It's also overwhelmingly cynical. When Jackie observes Obama's 2008 acceptance speech on one of the ubiquitous television screens, he hears Obama's optimistic "no more red states or blue states but United States" and his reference to "the enduring power of our ideals. " Jackie responds, "In America you're on your own. America isn't a country; it's a business. Now pay me."
That may be true for misfits like those who populate this movie — people who have no genuine friendships or family relationships, who spend time in and out of prison, who live only to get high on drugs or sex, and who interact only with women who are prostitutes. But I'm not willing to buy the idea that America is nothing but a business, or that being a business is a bad thing. This is just a sad, ugly, brutal movie with an idea that doesn't quite work.