Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly received mixed reviews upon its release in 2012 but the 97-minute gangster flick deserves reevaluation.
The rise of Trumpism shows the film’s cynicism about America and capitalism was ahead of its time, perhaps even prescient.
The plot is a thinly-veiled parable for the 2008 financial crisis — something Dominik was keen to drive home at every press interview.
The plot, such at is, sees an illegal gambling ring collapses due to a failure of regulation (it gets robbed). Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in by the bosses to clear everything up and get the gambling — that is, the economy — moving again.
The film was criticised for its heavy-handedness in the political themes: almost every other scene is punctuated by a politician’s speech on the 2008 financial crash and it pointedly ends with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech.
The ending drives home the film’s key message. Jackie has cleaned house and is arguing with a middle-management type boss about his payment.
In the background Obama speaks about hope for the future:
“Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”
There’s a break in the conversation between Jackie and the boss (listed as Driver in the script, played by Richard Jenkins).
“To reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one”.
Driver: “You hear that line, that line’s for you”
Jackie’s response is withering: “Don’t make me laugh. We’re one people. It’s a myth created by Thomas Jefferson.”
Driver: “Oh, now you’re gonna have a go at Jefferson, huh?”
“My friend, Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words, ‘All men are created equal.’ Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery.
“He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits.
“So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl.
“This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own.
“America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”
Written, produced and released slap-bang in the middle of Obama’s two terms, this world-weary, anti-America cynicism went down like a cup of cold sick. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a rare grade of “F” on an A+ to F scale.
Dominik was asked by Indiewire if he was worried the politics of the film would alienate viewers: “Not really. It’s kind of the idea of the movie.”
America is just a business, said Jackie, and four years after the film was released it elected a businessman to be president.
This ending statement, made almost directly at the camera, attracted a lot of interest at the Cannes Q&A after the premiere especially as it comes from the mouth of Hollywood icon Brad Pitt.
Dominik, who wrote the screenplay, chose to transpose George V Higgins’ novel from 1970s Boston to 2008 New Orleans (although the city is deliberately nondescript).
The Chopper director is making the point that this economic collapse felt by the criminal underbelly — a microcosm of the Great Recession — was simply part of being American.
The Australian native was asked about the political content of the film by popcorntaxi:
“The political content is not in Higgins’ book at all that was just some overlay of mine and I guess I’ve noticed some reaction against all the political stuff it’s just that stye don’t want their politics and gangsters mixed up maybe, like religion and porn or something.
“The thing about going to America as an outsider and somebody whose been raised on American culture you realise how much American cinema is about America presenting itself as it wants to be seen and there’s a big gap between that and the way Americans actually are.
“There’s basic difference between us as people, Americans are not a tribal people, they’re a nation of individuals all out to cut each other’s throats — and that’s what’s great about them.”
Dominik identifies with Jackie’s cynical view of America. Four years later cut-throat America had had enough of political platitudes and rhetoric about community. They elected Donald ‘America First’ Trump.
And Jackie predicted it. Fed up with the corporate mentality of his superiors he warns: “Christ sake, this country is fucked. I’m telling you, there’s a plague coming.”
Donald Trump is that plague. And much like Trump, the nondescript American city in Killing Them Softly does not care about truth, just about money.
Jackie knows that the operator of the card game was not involved in the robbery which caused the economic collapse. But he had robbed it before (an inside job) therefore he has to be offed, just to restore public confidence.
The truth doesn’t matter, just money.
Lives don’t matter, it’s all about the money. America is a business.
Look at Donald Trump itching to get the economy moving again despite 1000s of deaths from coronavirus (this weekend it reached 100,000 in the US).
As noted by Screenrant in a review from 2012:
The multiple scenes with Pitt and Jenkins debating proper criminal protocol in parked cars or bars are some of the most effective illustrations of what Dominik is attempting to do — in that their discussions of retribution and management of the urban jungle effectively (and subtly) mimic many of the discussions heard in the American political arena.
There are even echoes of Trumpism with the language used to talk about women in Killing Them Softly.
The President of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by 25 women. One of those, Jessica Leeds, accused Trump of groping her on a flight in the 1970s.
His response: “Believe me, she would not be my first choice.”
Trump’s insinuation is that she was not attractive enough to assault.
There’s a line, albeit much harsher, in Killing Them Softly, said by one of the card-game robbers Russell: “These girls you see ‘em, okay, you probably wouldn’t want to rape them. But all the plumbing works just fine.”
Maybe the problem with Killing Them Softly is that it was released four years too soon.
Now in the midst of Trumpism the film’s cynicism feels just right.
Brad Pitt, also a producer, said in the Cannes Q&A:
“I was there the night in Chicago when Obama won it was an amazing night, people were out on the streets and connected and jubilant. It was just an electric event, it was amazing.
“And I see that the speech that is chosen, the section that is chosen for the end of the film is a cynical look back, a statement of failure.”
Read the full first draft of the script here.
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