TROUBLE CITY

Movie Curiosities: Killing Them Softly

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I apologize in advance for getting political with this blog entry. I really do try to avoid all of that when talking about movies, but it's sort of unavoidable when talking about this one. You'll see what I mean. I remember the 2008 presidential election. Eight years of President George W. Bush, marked by partisan rancor and growing deficit, had finally culminated in the Great Recession. Then Obama came in, promising to turn all of that around. He expertly set himself up as the desperately-needed man who the entire country could rally around. He convinced the nation's voters to hope for a brighter future, promising to turn this country around in four years.

But I wasn't fooled.

I knew in my heart that no president could possibly deliver all of the promises Obama made. I knew that Dubya had dug us down so deeply that it would take more than four years to dig us back out. But mine was a minority opinion. Obama succeeded in bringing optimism back to politics, and that seemed to be enough for most voters. Moreover, I live in such an overwhelmingly liberal town that no one wanted to hear any of my negativity.

Oh, what a difference four years makes.

For all the good that's been done under President Obama, the optimism of his 2008 campaign was short-lived. Partisan bickering is as rampant as it ever was, the economy still hasn't completely recovered, there's still visible corruption in the higher levels of both private and public sectors, and Congress is just as slow as ever to get anything done.

Now, I'm not going to get into who I voted for, what my political beliefs are, or how things might have been done differently. That's not my point. My point is that after four years, the shining optimism of 2008 resulted in nothing. We were a cynical people before and we've become a cynical people afterward, and with good reason.

I bring this up because it's pretty much the foundation of Killing Them Softly.

The premise begins with Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a mobster who's been involved with some high-stakes poker games among the city's most powerful criminals. One day, Markie looks at all the money on the table and figures that two guys with shotguns could barge in and make a killing. So he hires two random thugs to do just that.

Markie makes a killing on the heist, but no one figures it out until he admits to the crime several years later. By that point, the games have started back up, all the original poker players have retired, and Markie has become a respectable guy in the criminal underworld, so everyone writes it off as a funny little anecdote.

Enter Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola), a dry cleaning entrepreneur who hears about this story. Squirrel's low on funds, but he figures that he can get two guys to rob the poker game, getting off clean because everyone will think Markie pulled the same stunt twice.

To carry out the job, Squirrel goes to a longtime associate named Frankie (Scoot McNairy). Unfortunately, Frankie's only friend is Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a brainless, delusional, asshole junkie who looks like a nightmare that a sewer once had. Neither of these guys are professional criminals, and they're both quite visibly amateurs at the whole "armed robbery" thing, yet the heist goes off without a hitch.

Unfortunately, this leaves the crime bosses out a hundred grand, and the poker games have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. That isn't even getting started on the recession that just hit the country, but I'll get back to that later. The point is that Squirrel's little heist has thoroughly wrecked the economy of the criminal underworld.

To solve the matter, the mob bosses turn to their lawyer (a guy known only as "Driver," played by Richard Jenkins), who then turns to a legendary mob enforcer known only as "Dillon." Unfortunately, Dillon is ailing in his declining years, so the enforcer obligingly sends his protege instead (Jackie Cogan, played by Brad Pitt). And that's when bodies start hitting the floor.

It's absolutely imperative to note that the film takes place in the waning months of 2008. The film even goes so far as to play the day's current events in the background, just so we know exactly when this film is set. We hear the news about banking corruption bringing down the whole system, we hear the speeches being made by President Bush, and at the end of the film, we hear Obama's election victory speech. In the latter, Obama argues that we are a united country in which all citizens are created and treated equally. The movie's narrative, and the news clips played previously, call that a crock of shit.

The film presents this criminal underworld as an allegory for America as a whole. The gangsters more or less represent the "one percent," who absolutely cannot be touched. They have all the connections, they have all the money, and they determine the rules everyone plays by. What's more, they have absolutely no empathy or compassion for anyone they deal with -- everything they do is just business.

It's also important to note that there's no place in their society for the proletariat. Though the criminals may not agree on who gets how big a share of the money and territory, the only thing they agree on is that no one else can take part. As such, when a couple of gutter-dwellers dare to join the big leagues of crime by... well, acting like criminals, no hesitation is made about putting them down.

This is a very pessimistic and cynical movie. Implicitly and explicitly, the movie is built around the thesis that America has never been about equality. From the days our Constitution was written and signed by a bunch of slaveowners, this has always been a country of haves and have-nots. It's a country dictated by business, in which those with all of the money get to have all the power, and anyone who tries to mess with that status quo will quickly be taken down.

It's a very ugly movie, but it's beautifully ugly. Everything about this movie was designed to make the audience uncomfortable, and it succeeds alarmingly well. The film wastes no time taking us out of our comfort zone, with bizarre music and a Barack Obama speech being punctuated by the opening credits. It's the sort of thing you have to experience to know just how unsettling it is.

What's more, this is not a movie that skimps on violence. This is not a movie that cuts away just when things are about to get gruesome. In fact, this is a film that absolutely revels in brutality. When characters get shot, we see the bullet wound in graphic detail. When characters got beaten half to death, I could almost feel the punches myself. Even when Russell gets high on heroin, the film takes great pains in showing us what the world is like from his groggy and impaired perspective.

Say what you will about this movie, but there's no denying that it's got balls. This is a very bold movie, totally unafraid of offending those with weak constitutions or upsetting those who don't like the film's cynical outlook. This is a level of commitment and audacity that Hollywood could use more of, quite frankly.

It should go without saying at this point that there isn't a single likeable or relateable character in this whole cast. It's hard to accept Frankie as a protagonist, because it was his own damn fault for getting into this mess to begin with. It's also hard to accept Driver as a protagonist, since he's basically a bureaucrat who works for mobsters. The closest we get is Jackie, since he works as the film's moral standard, but he's a professional killer whose morals and philosophies are pitch black.

But here's the thing: It's perfectly fine not to like the characters in this film. In fact, any amount of emotional attachment to these characters would only obscure those statements the film makes by killing them off. Additionally, though the film takes great pains in detailing what it calls the great American hypocrisy, it doesn't necessarily ask the audience to believe it.

At no point in this movie do we ever hear a counter-argument in favor in the American Dream. The film never introduces a patriotic character, not even to mock him or to kill him. Therefore, the film leaves us free to fill that counterpoint role for ourselves. The film makes its argument as plainly and simply as possible, then cuts to black in such a way that we're invited to judge for ourselves how correct the film is.

I feel compelled to add that in addition to the sterling direction and visuals, the cast of this movie is top-notch. Ray Liotta is great. Richard Jenkins is great. Scoot McNairy is very good. As for Brad Pitt, I feel compelled to point out that he's playing a destructive force of nature with a depressingly bleak view of modern society. And the character is being played by Tyler freaking Durden. Of course he knocks it out of the park.

The weak link in the cast is easily James Gandolfini, though that's by no fault of his own. Gandolfini is a wonderful actor and he's great to watch. Even so, his scenes bored me to tears. His character speaks entirely in drunken, rambling monologues about his wife, his previous sexual affairs, and a bunch of other crap that has absolutely no bearing on the story at hand. I keep thinking about what this character brought to the movie in terms of theme, and I haven't come up with anything that the film didn't address elsewhere. This character grinds the whole movie to a full fucking stop with every word out of his mouth, and that's part of the film's biggest problem.

This film is padded to the gills. Too many conversations are drawn out, and too many scenes go on for no good reason. A lot of that lends itself to tension, I grant you, but there comes a point when the film just takes it too far. Even worse, this film is only 100 minutes long. When a movie can only barely reach an hour and a half after this much padding, something is terribly wrong.

I do give Killing Them Softly a recommendation, but that comes with some hefty caveats. The pacing is one example, for the film's brief 100-minute runtime can still feel like it's dragging. Far more importantly, this film is so dark and gritty that it makes The Dark Knight look like the '60s-era Batman TV show. This film is gruesome and pessimistic on a level not usually seen in mainstream releases, and I imagine that will be enough to put off most mainstream viewers.

On the other hand, those filmgoers with the constitution to handle it will find a fascinating movie that's superbly acted and beautifully shot. Basically, this is a picture for film aficionados who aren't afraid of being shocked or challenged if it means seeing a technically proficient film with bold ideas to offer.

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