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Killing Them Softly



The girl and I went and saw Killing Them Softly last night and we both quite liked it.

It is Andrew Dominik's third film, following the excellent Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both excellent films. Reuniting him with Brad Pitt, Dominik's Killing Them Softly tells the story of a small crime world set against the 2008 presidential election. In it, enforcer Jackie Coogan (Pitt) is brought in by a crime organisation to find two men after they hold up a card came and make away with forty thousand dollars. Besieged by bureaucracy and the inadequateness of himself and those around him, Coogan slowly and eventually finds the men responsible, and enacts revenge.

While the film itself is universally excellent--Ben Mendelsohn's junkie Russell is superb--the strength and the weakness of the film draws itself from the same element, that of the backdrop of the 2008 election, and the use of statements by the then President Bush and the later President Obama. The goal--at least as far as I was concerned--of this was to turn the film into a metaphor for the state of democracy and capitalism in the United States of America, thus reducing all the characters in the film not to characters in their own right, but to parts of an argument that is strung out and brought to conclusion by Coogan's final lines in the film. Unfortunately, Dominik's statement within the film is not a measured one, not one in which his metaphors meet juxtapositions, or find themselves in a moral or intellectual crisis. It is what it is and while that is fine and good, it does leave you wanting a little more.

Dominik's statement in Killing Them Softly is that the capitalism decline of the country is linked to the weakness of the men--and they are all men--in charge, their unwillingness to be bloody, to view the opinion of the public and take it to its logical conclusion. As with a Wall Street bailout, when Markie Trattman's game is held up years after he held it up himself, the logical conclusion is that he did it himself. Despite the fact that he didn't, Pitt's Coogan rightly points out that Trattman--Ray Liotta--needs to die, because if he doesn't, it sends a message out to everyone that they can rob his game and blame others. It mirrors the lack of punishment dealt out to Wall Street and the big banks in the wake of the financial collapse and meant that those responsible for the financial crisis could continue as they pleased and that, indeed, the lack of repercussions would encourage only others to do as they had done before.

It's an interesting statement, not one I disagree with, but as I said, it's not measured. Dominik is not intent on creating a conversation or debate about that, but rather instead about crafting an argument that goes one way. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does result in some missed opportunities in the narrative. James Gandolfini's drunken, nihilistic Mickey who is bought in to kill the man Coogan knows, is unable to do it because of his own fatalism with the state of the world, and while it is a fine performance and the scenes with him and Pitt are great, there's a moment when, basically, you realise nothing will be done with Mickey, that he won't leave his hotel room, that he won't take the revenge that is required because he represents those in power, the old generation of jaded men who see no point in changing the status quo, and would rather drink and fuck young women. Amusing as the statement and the characterisation is, it doesn't really go anywhere.

Still, when Coogan actually takes things into his own hands, the argument does shift a little, and Dominik begins to tell the audience what was required at the time. Pitt's final lines at the end of the film are both the solution to the problem, and the outcome of the unsolved problem, and close the film excellently:

"I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own. America's not a country. It's a business. Now fuckin' pay me."