Alone in Obama's America

Killing Them Softly (MA). Director: Andrew Dominik. Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini. 97 minutes

On a television in a grimy bar, freshly minted US president Barack Obama waxes lyrical about the unity of the people. In the foreground, Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a brutal and enigmatic enforcer of the criminal underworld, scoffs at Obama's nice words. America is not a community, he counters — it's a business. And Cogan just wants to get paid. 'I'm living in America,' he has grumbled previously, 'and in America, you're on your own.'

Such is the vision of the decrepit American Dream proffered by Australian filmmaker Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) in Killing Them Softly; a violent parable about American capitalism and the ignorance and incompetence born in bureaucracy.

It takes place in a New Orleans underworld run by a loose committee of mafia 'middle managers'. There's a high-stakes card game in this town run by local mid-wig Markie Trattman (Liotta), where the wiseguys go to throw their cash around. One local gangster comes up with a scheme to rob the game, employing two small-time crooks (McNairy and Mendelsohn) to do the deed. The fallout from their 'perfect plan' is both costly and brutal.

There was a lot of money to be made on the card game, so the main objective is to ensure that the game keeps going. The only way to do that, Cogan explains to the mob lawyer (Jenkins) who enlists his services to help set things to rights, is to restore confidence. Confidence, after all, is key to economic order, as we are reminded by one of the political speeches that are woven, via radio news broadcasts, throughout the film's soundtrack.

These broadcasts underline repeatedly the fact that Dominik's fictional scenario is not just an economic crisis in miniature — it is the Global Financial Crisis rendered as bloodsoaked morality tale. Its characters operate in a moral vacuum according to the dictums of the free market. It is survival not just of the fittest but of the one who best understands and adheres most slavishly to the principles of dog-eat-dog capitalism.

Restoring confidence entails making an example of Trattman. Cogan knows Trattman isn't responsible, but the gangster's peers have placed the blame squarely in his corner. He must be seen to pay. On the question of whether a beating will suffice or if Trattman must die, Cogan and the lawyer do not agree, and they debate the point as coolly as bankers in a board meeting. (Frequently, Dominik's script is wickedly funny as well as shrewd.)

Subsequently Trattman is subject to two acts of violence: first, a beating by henchmen, played out in gruesome real time; then, a shooting by Cogan, portrayed in highly stylised super-slow-mo. The contrast reinforces the cold-bloodedness of Cogan's commitment to the market forces; he prefers to kill from a distance, without the emotion of human entanglements. In the cynical world Dominik has created, this fact puts Cogan in good stead.

Dominik's point about dehumanisation and the market is salient, but he labours it. Gandolfini appears as a once formidable wiseguy, Mickey, now bloated and despondent on the excesses of criminality. Cogan summons him to share his murderous assignment. But far from being ready to spring into action, Mickey swills martinis and beer, courts prostitutes, and soliloquises at length on the impact the demands that his career have made on his marriage.

Dominik's taut and thoughtful thriller slackens through these scenes. It's easy to infer that Mickey has sacrificed personal relationships in favour of material gratification, and is worse off for it. In fact his extended monologues appear to be an attempt to connect on a human level with Cogan, though Cogan can countenance this only as far as it furthers his economic objectives; in the end he is all about business.

But you can't help but think that someone like Quentin Tarrantino (to whom Dominik owes a stylistic debt) might have pulled this off better. In his hands the monologues would have been riveting; Dominik's writing just isn't as sharp, and so these scenes add flab rather than muscle to the film. A lost opportunity perhaps, given the coup of having Pitt and Gandolfini — both very good actors — in the room together.

Killing Them Softly is a political but not a partisan film. Obama is portrayed, through the lens of the characters and their experiences, as an idealist but not an ideologue. To them he is but the latest leader whose nice words about solidarity are not reflected in their ordinary reality, where it is indeed dog eat dog and the spoils go to the most calculating and vicious. As a morality play the film is steeped in but implicitly rebukes such cynicism. 


 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. 


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Andrew Dominik, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini


 

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