“America’s not a country, it’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”

Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of the crime novel Cogan’s Trade, about a contract killer (the eponymous Jackie Cogan, played by Brad Pitt) hired to kill “three morons” after they rob a mafioso card game. In a world of crime movies increasingly relying on complex plots, late-game reveals and twists, Killing Them Softly is refreshingly straightforward, which also allows it to make a strong political commentary that may or may not be in the original novel–I have no way of knowing. Bluntly: KTS is the best fictional account of the 2007-08 financial crisis and the political response to it yet made. It ain’t directly revolutionary, but it’s a start. (Spoilers!)

I would not be surprised if the original novel made some reference to the then-recent ’73 oil crisis. The movie itself is littered, from beginning to end, with C-SPAN recordings of various statements by Bush, Obama, and McCain relating to the crisis and the logic of the government’s actions as a result. The opening in particular is mesmerizing, cutting between a shot of a portal to an open, desolate lot with audio of an Obama speech and the title cards, breaking up the speech, inserting the narrative into that time, before showing one of the three morons, Frankie–the most sympathetic–walk out into the light. Behind him, side-by-side, are billboards for McCain and Obama which are noticeably fake–which I realize I should clarify, I mean are fake designs, not CGI–as though to say, “yes, this is fictional. This is a commentary. We are not filmmakers pretending to be journalists.” Again, quite refreshing, in our world of hyper-, pseudo-realistic “based on a true story” films like Zero Dark Thirty.

That lot is the meeting spot for Frankie (Scoot McNairy, apparently in Argo which I have yet to see), whose accent is apparently the only remaining vestige of the novel’s setting in Boston–by most accounts the movie is set in Louisiana–and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, who you might recognize as the polar opposite of his role as John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises), a friend of his who is selling purebred dogs to get up enough money to start dealing smack. (Can’t help but think of the classic criminal rule: “don’t get high on your own supply.” This will be Russell’s undoing.) They meet up with Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, the first but not the last Sopranos actor in the film) about a possible job, before tension between Russell and Squirrel get them thrown out. Squirrel and Frankie meet again later, and Squirrel explains the job: rob a mob poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who previously ended up getting off scott free when he had hired two guys to rob his game years ago.

It’s during the robbery that the movie’s metaphor becomes painfully clear, as a speech by Bush about the financial crisis is broadcast during it. As the director Andrew Dominik put it, both crises were caused by deregulation: for us, a whole slew of them post-’73, culminating in the revoking of Glass-Steagall in ’99; for them, the failure to punish Markie when he knocked over his own game, allowing Squirrel & co. to come up with their smart ass idea. Markie ends up getting killed despite Jackie figuring out right quick that he isn’t stupid enough to rip off his own game twice, because regardless of his own role, most people believe–proving Squirrel right–that Markie did it. Thus in order to restore public confidence he needs to be whacked–and it’s interesting to note that it is Jackie who believes this needs to be done, not the Mob (who remain unseen throughout the film). Moreover, the movie can be seen as a presentation of how the state’s response to the crisis should have gone: not to bail out everyone (aside from Lehman anyway) but to take out everyone responsible–i.e. to fully actualize the capitalist ideology about risk and bankruptcy–and of course whoever else is necessary in order to restore market confidence.

Aside from some nice details of filming, from how Russell’s doped-up drifting in and out of sleep is portrayed to the way the camera is attached to a car door when Jackie, with Frankie’s help, gets out to wait for Squirrel in order to kill him, this is the movie in a nutshell–not to mention the fun cameo by James Gandolfini as washed-out New York killer Mickey (who basically plays the role of the Failed Father)–this is the jist of the movie. The whole thing is a build-up to the final conversation between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), the representative of the Mob (who comments in their first meeting about how the Mob now runs on a corporate model, requiring approval of the smallest detail, etc.). Driver has only given Jackie 30 grand for the three kills (Martie, Squirrel, and Frankie; Russell gets picked up by the cops when he goes to get a brick of heroin he had stashed in a locker), and Jackie wants 45.

They meet in a bar during Obama’s victory speech in 2008. When Obama references e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) Driver says “that line’s for you,” that Jackie needs to accept the “recession price” for the kills, and thus Jackie launches into a brief speech about the lie of America as a country, as a unified community. He singles out Thomas Jefferson as an aristocratic hypocrite, writing that “all men are created equal” when his own children lived in slavery to him, in order to rouse “the rabble” (it’s too bad he doesn’t say “the mob”) so he can sit back and sip his wine and “fuck his slave girl” and not pay taxes to the British. Again, the movie is not revolutionary–the power structure of the film, the rules of the Mob, are left unchallenged–but perhaps, as Žižek would have it, this direct identification with the ideology of capitalism is the most effective way to undermine it. Killing Them Softly is the latest in a long line of crime films as US mythology, going back to The Godfather, implicitly portraying capitalism for what it is: a criminal enterprise as a way to organize society. It may not speak to the ideological problems of the process of overthrowing capitalism (as, say, The Matrix attempts to), but it does speak to a more pressing ideological problem: the recognition of capitalism for what it is. Only then can we move to the real struggle.


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