Or is it a large obstacle course where we all do what we can to sabotage one another in pursuit of personal gain?
Let’s forget any sort of middle ground for the moment.
If we had to pick between the two options, I think our answers may depend upon the kind of day we’re having.
But if you’re looking for a polemic to make an argument for the latter, Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” does a very good job of it.
Since audiences aren’t exactly flocking to see this film (it had a dud of an opening weekend and many of those who did see it gave it terrible marks), I thought I should place myself among those who praise it.
The film takes place in New Orleans during the 2008 election and the financial meltdown. Speeches by John McCain and Barack Obama are heard on radios throughout the movie.
The story revolves around the mafia cleaning up house after an illegal card game has been knocked over, thus hurting business. Who is going to invest if they don’t feel safe?
Ah, the parallels between crime and the collapse of the financial sector begin to surface …
Many who didn’t like the film as much as me (including my brother), felt its message was stated so obviously on so many occasions as to make it clumsy and an insult to one’s intelligence. I guess it never felt that way to me. I became engrossed by the characters and the politics of the criminal proceedings.
It all culminates in a final exchange between Jackie (Brad Pitt) and his mafia contact (Richard Jenkins). Jackie feels he is being under paid for his services. It’s a brilliant speech, and one I think will be remembered by future film-goers. (If you’d rather wait and see it in the movie, don’t read the following passage taken from IMDb.com. Also, it contains explicit language for those who are squeamish about such things.)
Barack Obama (on TV): …to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one…
Driver: You hear that line? Line’s for you.
Jackie Cogan: Don’t make me laugh. One people. It’s a myth created by Thomas Jefferson.
Driver: Oh, so now you’re going to have a go at Jefferson, huh?
Jackie Cogan: My friend, Thomas Jefferson is 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’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went 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 fuckin’ pay me.
Whether you agree or not, you’ve got to admit that’s a very provocative way to look at things. Sitting in the theater, I was left in awe as the credits rolled.
David Fear wrote an informative piece about “Killing Them Softly” in Time Out Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts:
“I mean, it is the story of an economic crisis when you think about it,” Dominik claims. “You’ve got this criminal economy that’s supported by gambling and somebody causes this huge failure of confidence. Then it happens a second time—because it never really got taken care of the first time. And now you have a system of checks and balances that’s completely collapsed due to a lack of regulation. So when you look at it that way…” He chuckles again. “The parallels were just too good to ignore. Crime movies are all about capitalism anyway, so this seemed like a good opportunity to make more of a self-conscious crime film.” There’s a pause on the line. “I’m sure some will accuse me of making a pretentious crime film as well. Some have already, actually.” …
Pitt’s weary take on a man who’s just trying to do his job is the dark heart of the film, and it’s his final speech—“America is not a country, it’s a business…now fucking pay me!”—that offers Killing Them Softly’s single most caustic summation of our nation’s dollar-sign mentality. That line isn’t in Higgins’s book, Dominik says. “It comes from my own experience of living in this country over the last eight years,” he admits. “I like dealing with extreme people in my movies, certainly. But you don’t need to be a criminal to realize that the notion of life in America being reduced to one transaction after another has never been more true than it is now.”
I highly recommend “Killing Them Softly” as both a genre film and as a criticism of American capitalism. I can’t wait to see it again to determine if it holds up on a second viewing or whether the messaging does indeed become overbearing.
I hope some of you give it a chance, too. Dominik has done amazing work in his career so far (“Chopper” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), and I want to see more.