“Killing Them Softly” puts the blame on Bush

"Killing Them Softly" puts the blame on Bush

“Killing Them Softly” is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime. But it tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests a metaphoric connection between government and organized crime not unlike the connection made years ago by Harry Browne in “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.” Through a barrage of radio and television voice-overs, the film implies that the executive branch is an organization that gets rich off the vices of others, controls public opinion by casting blame on someone known to be innocent, and assassinates anyone who gets in its way. The movie suggests, in short, that America is nothing but a floating poker game.

But this isn’t an ordinary poker game where the house always wins. Somehow, everyone at this table is making money, and the games are being played all over town. In the film, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta)—clearly designed to represent Bush—runs a literal poker game. We learn in exposition that he figured out a way to set up a robbery of the game, pocket the money, and make his cronies—clearly designed to represent corporate America—believe that someone else has stolen the cash. Later Trattman brags about what he did, but since the game is back in play and the money is flowing again, everyone laughs and Trattman gets a bye—this time.

A few months later a dry-cleaning magnate and low-level criminal called Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) figures that if he sends in some of his own flunkies to steal the cash from the new poker games, everyone will assume that Trattman did it again, and Trattman will get the blame. Squirrel knows that Trattman will get killed for it this time, but he doesn’t care. After all, Trattman did it before; it’s just a delayed punishment.

Trattman does indeed get the blame, even though he actually tries to prevent the robbery this time. The faceless bosses who control the games send their straight-laced, button up business representative (Richard Jenkins) to handle the investigation and punishment. Lest we forget that this is an allegory about Bush’s presidency and not a film about the mob, the nameless messenger is so straight laced that he cringes when someone lights up a cigarette in his car.

Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to interrogate Trattman, get the names of the flunkies who pulled the job, and eventually execute them all. It is a graphic, brutal interrogation, and in the end Jackie is convinced that Trattman is innocent. He had nothing to do with it. But truth isn’t important here; as the radio voice-overs remind us, consumer confidence is all that matters. President Bush’s words are heard on a television in the background: “America’s financial problem is complex. Confidence in our financial system is essential.”

Similarly, the messenger tells Cogan that they have to restore confidence in the poker games, and if a public assassination of an innocent man will restore that confidence, so be it. “It doesn’t matter whether he did it,” the messenger says of Trattman. “He’s responsible for it. We need a fall guy for the public angle.” Meanwhile, the voice of a Bush official intones from the radio, “This isn’t what we want to do, but it’s what we must do to restore confidence in the U.S. economy.” Lest the viewer try to deflect blame from Bush to a different official, references are also made to “the rush into Iraq on election eve” and other events associated with Bush.

“Killing Them Softly” tries to be artistically and philosophically important. It’s a getting great reviews from the critics, but let’s be honest: the mainstream press will fawn over anything that seems to blame Bush and the Republicans for what ails America. Moreover, ever since the artistically dense “Tree of Life” was given an Oscar nomination last year, Hollywood filmmakers have felt the mandate to make metaphorically rich films. To be sure, I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusions in film. But this one is simply not worth the effort. It’s a sad, ugly film about sad, ugly people.

The title is an allusion to Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly,” in which a young girl is moved to tears by the lyrics of a song that seem to tell her own story, just as this movie purports to tell Bush’s story. But in the film the phrase takes on an additional meaning. Jackie tells the messenger about his assassination style: “I like to kill them softly, from a distance. Up close they cry and beg and piss themselves. It gets emotional and messy.”

And he’s right. The violence in this film is brutal and close up, and the victims do cry and beg. There is nothing soft about this hit man except his voice. Moreover, there is nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and there are virtually no women in the film, except one quick scene with a prostitute. All the characters care about or talk about is getting physical pleasure from drinking, heavy smoking, drugs and prostitutes.

As much as it tries to be an artsy message movie, “Killing Them Softly” is little more than a garden variety hit man movie, long on blood and short on character. Despite its heavy handed metaphors, arty special effects, jazzy music, and stellar acting, the story is barely interesting and entirely predictable.

It’s also overwhelmingly cynical. When Jackie observes Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech on one of the ubiquitous television screens, he snorts derisively at Obama’s optimistic, “no more red states or blue states but United States” and his reference to “the enduring power of our ideals.” Jackie says, “In America you’re on your own. America isn’t a country; it’s a business. Now pay me.”

That may be true for misfits like those who populate this movie—people who have no genuine friendships or family relationships, who spend time in and out of prison, who live only to get high on drugs or sex, and who interact only with women who are prostitutes. It might even be true for mainstream journalists. But I’m not willing to buy the idea that America is nothing but a business, or that being a business is a bad thing. This is just a sad, ugly, brutal movie with an idea that doesn’t work, getting rave reviews that it doesn’t deserve.

“Killing Them Softly,” directed by Andrew Dominik. Weinstein Brothers, 2012, 97 minutes.

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