Killing Them Softly earns a footnote in cultural history for being the first dramatic film to question the Obama cult. It happens in a thrilling climactic moment that is part of director Andrew Dominik’s scheme examining America’s current financial crisis as a result of failed political promises from Presidents Reagan to Obama. Dominik shows how their empty bromides trickle down to the mean streets of gangsters and assassins, whose greed and subterfuge make them vulgar, miscreant parallels of elected officials.
It’s facile cynicism, not to be taken too seriously, but coming so soon after Spielberg’s hagiographic Lincoln it’s also a bold, bracing political dare. Against the prevailing snooty political bloviating, Dominik gets down and dirty, using the crime genre as a political abstraction—not against the Right or Left but to subvert political cant. He envisions a venal society run primarily by men (the film’s one female is a prostitute) where the realpolitik is misery: Life reduced to street fighting, drugs, betrayal, survival. Top dog survivor is Jackie Cogan, played by Brad Pitt with riveting authority that gradually resembles a politician’s casual yet lethal demeanor—although Cogan, perfectly, is a political skeptic. This coup should make George Clooney howl; he attempted a similar cynical redemption in the stultifying assassin-movie The American.
Dominik takes a strained, pulp cinema idea of what it is to be American. This infatuated Australian filmmaker’s essay on American genre types makes Cogan operate in the criminal world like a union thug—always out for self, manipulating other miscreants to do what seems in their best interest while he remains the beneficiary. The top-to-bottom pragmatism deserves a better title, like All the President’s Hitmen.
Because Pitt soft-pedals Dominik’s aestheticism (as in their previous arch collaboration The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford), he makes Killing Them Softly feel like a better movie than it is. Here, Pitt is no less magnetic than Gary Cooper in The Westerner; his laconic performance rising just above the lowlife funk that has become over-familiar from the gangster worlds of Scorsese and Tarantino and Guy Ritchie that Dominik imitates. At times Dominik’s nameless no-man’s-land, an abstract dystopia of genuine American ruin (filmed in post-Katrina New Orleans yet resembling Detroit), feels discomfortingly like a simultaneous live-streaming of GoodFellas, Reservoir Dogs and Snatch.
Dominik’s focus on the punchy faces of Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola, James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn-doing-Gary-Oldman-doing-Robert-De Niro-in-Mean-Streets plays on generic déjà vu.
But those movies avoided political interpretation; their hard worlds simply descended from other gangster movies with only passing reference to reality. Remember, Scorsese started out a realist but soon became a stylish, violent fantasist. Dominik uses style (extreme facial close-ups to suggest hypnotic concentration, an elongated card-game heist, a slo-mo, Cubist murder and lots of talking) to suggest desperation in a moral vacuum. Naturally, playwright Sam Shepherd appears briefly (abstractly) as a mythic killer.
Pitt enters the movie late, echoing Shepherd’s portentousness yet scaling it down to Everyman naturalism. Cogan ranks with Pitt’s best acting (Meet Joe Black, Fight Club, Jesse James) and is simply more interesting than his Clooneyish egotism in Moneyball. Cogan’s candor allegorizes a sensible working man or voter—which makes his ultimate, fuck-Obama pronouncement all the stronger.
The film’s free-floating political and economic rhetoric (in the background of gambling dens and drug hazes) underscores several, redundant personal soliloquies by men in trouble. Cogan walking past a background figure cursing his environment sums it up best. His detached determination makes him nearly heroic in a jaded culture. Dominik’s arty effect of abstracted time, blasted spaces and unsettling masculine dilemmas (Gandolfini and Mendelsohn’s pathetic self-destruction) are held together by both Pitt’s authority and Obama’s recent cant: “Our stories are singular but our destiny is shared.” In other words, they altogether describe an underworld apocalypse. “This country is fucked,” Mendelsohn’s junkie says. “I’m telling you. There’s a plague coming.”
The politicization of the gangster movie started with The Godfather (America as a capitalist corporation, thus the mob), and Coppola’s facile concept succeeded until he brought it to a spiritual reckoning in The Godfather, Part III. Mainstream media reaction rejected Coppola’s summary consequences (including Michael’s repentance), eventually leading to the guilt-free Sopranos—which Obama told Oprah he loved. Bill and Hilary Clinton even emulated that show in a political campaign ad. Now Dominik—not spiritual like Coppola, but shrewd—rewires that immorality to the cause-and-effect subtext of Killing Them Softly. Then remember, Oliver Stone trumped all of this in Savages, his occasionally brilliant study of millennial American character trait.
Given Dominik’s grandiose conceit—featuring anachronistic presidential speeches and ironic pop songs—the film is only a little less hyperbolic than a junkie’s paranoia. This outsider director sees America’s economic woes as a gangster movie purgatory. It’s debatable, but it has a much greater effect than the recession documentary Inside Job and the drab, socially conscious thrillers Michael Clayton, Syriana, Margin Call. Dominik and Pitt go where those films wouldn’t dare. Putting Obama in the tradition of bought leaders sharpens Killing Them Softly’s pretenses. It’s not merely an Obama slam, it’s a wake-up call. In his powerhouse ending, Dominik incorporates Barrett Strong’s Motown anthem “Money”; its indestructible beat underscores Cogan/Pitt’s grassroots realism. It hikes Pitt and Dominik’s disgust—and rips a new one in the self-glorifying tradition of gangster and political movies.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
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