‘This is business not personal’ is one of the classic lines spoken in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece about Italian-American organised crime, and it’s become a line synonymous with the film’s capitalism allegory. While the gangster and crime genres have long been an ideal template for critiquing the indifferent whims and inequalities of the free market and the greed and borderline psychopathic behaviour of the financial sector, few have so overtly and rigorous explored the metaphor to the extent of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.
While it is adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, Killing Them Softly is a character driven crime drama set during the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis and the 2008 Obama/McCain election. Continual news broadcasts in the background announce the oncoming financial crisis along with speeches by outgoing president George W Bush and incoming president Barack Obama. This provides a backdrop to the film’s story of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional organised crime enforcer who comes to town to investigate a card game heist. The system Cogan needs to protect has been threatened by petty criminals trying to reach above their status in a time of economic uncertainty and Cogan’s employers do not need that instability. The guilty parties need to be held to account and some calculated collateral damage will also need to occur to ensure the people at the top continue getting paid and good PR is maintained. The crime/capitalism metaphor is anything but subtle – and the final line of the film really rams home the message in case anybody still hasn’t picked it up – but that doesn’t stop Killing Them Softly from being a potent critique of what is rotten at the core of contemporary American capitalism.
Just as the political speeches ring hollow with the usual rhetoric, the classic gangster/capitalist ideal of individualism is revealed to be an unobtainable myth. The bottom dwelling criminals who aspire to more by pulling one supposedly fool proof heist soon discover that they cannot possibly beat the system. While the myth of the lone enforcer is expressed though the Cogan character, he still answers to a committee of criminals via their lawyer, known simply as Driver (Richard Jenkins). And like in many Martin Scorsese films (especially Goodfellas,which shares Killing Them Softly actor Ray Liotta) as well as the cable television series The Sopranos (which shares actors including James Gandolfini) the characters aren’t guaranteed a big climatic finale. Some die off screen, some simply leave the narrative through more mundane plot developments. The romantic notion of hitting the big time and then exiting in a blaze of glory is undermined reflecting the reality that most people fade away with a whimper rather than a bang of a gun.
Cars play an important part in Killing Them Softly for also demythologising the promises of 21st century capitalism. Particularly in classical Hollywood cinema, cars have represented freedom, youthfulness and affluence. They are a perfect symbol of the Great American Dream; a mass-produced status symbol with the power to speed the owner away to a better place. In Killing Them Softly cars represent death. They are the recurring meeting place for Cogan and Driver where they debate who needs to die and who needs to be simply beaten in order to maintain the status quo. Furthermore all on screen deaths and other acts of violence occur inside cars or next to cars, stripping them of their liberating power and leaving them impotent.
The cynical and ruthless themes are also expressed visually. The brown and orange look of the film captures the feelings of decay and depression, establishing the setting as a type of urban frontier; untamed and existing on the fringes. The jarring sound and visual editing during the credits and opening scene very effectively establish the unnerving and fragmented world that the film takes place in. Most impressive is the extraordinary sound design and Greig Fraser’s cinematography. The heist scene boasts an almost unbearable tension while key scenes of violence are turned in grotesque mini-performance pieces where every time a punch lands or a gun is fired, the moment is experienced viscerally by the audience. One disturbing yet captivating death scene is shot in ultra slow motion to become a visual symphony of rain, broken glass and blood. Other characters may fade away, but those who do get to exit dramatically become a spectacle of brutality and agony, where the audience experiences every splatter of blood and every torn piece of flesh.
Killing Them Softly is the work of an extremely confident filmmaker. While having previously explored larger than life criminals/anti-heroes in Chopper (2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik reaches new heights with this crime parable. Incorporating several stunning stylised moments with a grim, gritty reality, Killing Them Softly is an engrossing vision of hell where status, money and image have become the ultimate goals and human life is just another commodity to be traded.