Alex Sitaras: Andrew Dominik‘s first feature film in a decade, Blonde, will be released on Netflix next month, so there’s no better time to unravel his previous film, Killing Them Softly. The film is a gritty crime drama about the manhunt for three men who rob a gambling ring. The mob sends in two hitmen played by Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini to track down and kill the crooks. Pitt plays the level-headed Jackie whereas Gandolfini plays the aging, hedonistic Mickey who himself becomes a liability in Jackie’s operation. But there’s a lot more to this film than the manhunt, isn’t there Ben?
Ben McDonald: There definitely is. I first turned this film on randomly in 2020 and initially didn’t think too much of it outside of the terrific performances and jarring style, but something about this film has stuck with me for the past two years. Revisiting it recently, I was struck not only again by how genuinely incredible all the performances are – from Ray Liotta as the slimy, pathetic Markie Trattman, to Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as the sweaty, gross drifters who rob him to, of course, James Gandolfini as the sex-addicted, booze-chugging hitman – but also by how shockingly blunt the film is both in its message and how it conveys it.
Before we get into the ideas of the film, however, we should probably start by describing its convoluted, lightly Coen-esque narrative. Killing Them Softly is based upon The George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade, and is set in 2008 following a poorly conceived robbery plot committed by three criminals against a local mob card game. Drifters Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are directed by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, another veteran of The Sopranos) to hold up a card game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who Squirrel thinks the mob will ultimately blame after boasting responsibility for a prior robbery. Brad Pitt plays a cynical enforcer sent in by one of the mob’s corporate higher-ups (underplayed brilliantly by the unassuming Richard Jenkins) to investigate the rip-off and take some heads to preserve the mob’s street cred.
Right off the bat, the film begins with a rather striking introduction that will more or less set the tone for the rest of its runtime. We intercut rapidly between a handheld shot of Scoot McNairy’s character slowly walking out of a tunnel and all-black title cards, the sounds of Barack Obama delivering what appears to be an uplifting speech suddenly and unpredictably interrupted by ominous, droning music whenever the title cards appear. It almost feels like the opening of a horror movie rather than that of a gritty crime thriller, with the score eventually overtaking and mixing with Obama’s words in a unsettling, eerie cacophony. What did you think of this introduction, Alex?
Alex: I think it’s fitting for the film. As you pointed out, Killing Them Softly is a very visceral film. Oddly enough, the robbery within the film is perhaps the least tension-inducing scene in the film. To me, the most striking scene within Killing Them Softly is the attack that occurs on Trattman when he is “blamed” for the robbery. Neither Pitt or Jenkins’ characters believe for a second that Trattman would rob his own card game twice, but optics is everything. He must be made an example of. And Dominik does this in brutal fashion, supported by Liotta’s acting. Liotta’s performance genuinely looks like that of a man who has been caught completely off guard and victimized. It’s difficult to watch this scene because it’s so visceral. It genuinely looks like a man is being hurt. It’s uncomfortable.
To that point, I’d agree with you that the acting in this film is excellent. After the discordant intro, Frankie and Russell make immediately clear just how much they are lowlifes, and the introduction of Pitt and Jenkins’ characters illustrate just how bad a mistake Frankie and Russell have made by kicking the hornets nest. Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is methodical, disciplined no doubt by years of involvement in the mob; Frankie and Russell are far from it. Each character is expertly defined through both performance and writing, and the dialogue within this film is a real thrill as well. Pitt and Gandolfini are provided with more than ample opportunity to let their acting chops show through monologues, and there’s rarely scenes that include more than two characters. To me, that helps emphasize the acting and dialogue occurring within the scene.
In retrospect, it’s almost impossible to believe that Killing Them Softly received the (dis?)honor of receiving an “F” Cinemascore. The message of the film, which we’ll no doubt get to, certainly has its detractors, but one would think pieces of this film would lift audiences’ gut reaction to the film. I think the time period the film was released in – 2012, just following President Obama’s re-election – has some factor. What are your thoughts?
Ben: I think the poor audience reaction is probably due to two factors – one being that it is an overly talky, traditionally unsatisfying crime film that runs just under 100 minutes before abruptly ending. While the film offers just about all the narrative beats you’d expect in a mob movie, and even has a hefty dose of style, it’s all pretty miserable (your own example above of Ray Liotta’s vicious beating is just one manifestation). The film reminds me much more of the kinds of grounded, de-glamorized mob dramas in a show like The Sopranos or Martin Scorsese‘s most recent film The Irishman, but even those works at least have characters you can at least empathize with, whereas here just about everyone is slimy, apathetic, or plain ruthless.
Without getting too political, I think the second reason the film failed to garner audience respect was indeed its overwhelming cynicism about both the Obama administration and the overall governmental response to the recession under both Obama and his predecessor. The film is set in 2008, right in the middle of both the financial collapse and the presidential election, and it pretty much never lets you forget about those two things for its entire runtime. Nearly every other scene has the contemporary news on either the TV or radio, whether it’s George W. Bush describing his view on the necessity of bailing out the big banks responsible for the crash or Obama drumming up momentum on the campaign trail. In doing this, I think the film is making a blunt but shrewd micro-macro comparison between this nondescript crime story of the proverbial “little guy” getting crushed under the heel of the mob and the millions of Americans whose finances and consequent health were severely harmed as a result of the recession, drawing parallels to the ways in which both the world of petty crime and ordinary America continue to be slowly suffocated by an increasingly privatized and hostile economy – whether in the form of a corporatized mob or big finance capital.
While admittedly an unsubtle touch, I quite like this pervasive use of radio and TV connecting the film’s events to the world at large. It’s a technique that I have to believe inspired Sean Baker‘s 2021 film Red Rocket, which used its backdrop of the 2016 presidential election (much less successfully, in my opinion) to draw parallels between the ways its slimy main character manipulates the residents of a small Texas town to those employed by the victor of that eventual race on America at large. But anyway, what did you make of the film’s message, Alex? Is this more or less your reading as well?
Alex: I have a similar read, but would argue that the film isn’t trying to be persuasive, but rather portray an America during a recession and tell a mob story. And to that effect, it succeeds. One can’t take too literarily a film with this much symbolism.
Killing Them Softly does draw a comparison between the three crooks and the “little guy[s]” in America, just as Red Rocket does with Mikey and Donald Trump, but I think those comparisons have to be taken at face value. The average American isn’t a slimy, unintelligent mess and we cannot entertain a legitimate comparison between a nobody Mikey and a world-famous celebrity such as Donald Trump. There might be commonalities, sure, but an overt comparison falls apart the more one thinks about it. And maybe that’s why this film doesn’t hold up to some audiences who aren’t willing to suspend disbelief. At first, I found the comparison between politics and the mob more apt, but as we’re having this discussion, the comparison seems just as ludicrous. Obviously optics, messaging, delegating blame, and maintaining a ‘brand image’ is relevant to corporations, politics, and the mob, but it’s incongruous to say that they are one and the same. Whether or not one thinks that Killing Them Softly is actually making that comparison without being tongue-in-cheek likely determines how one regards the film.
I can’t help but wonder what the reception of the film would be if it were released today in a post-COVID, post-Trump administration America. One can make the case that the comparisons within Killing Them Softly are more accurate than they were at the time of the film’s release, but I’m not sure if the film would be any less divisive. As we’ve both noted, the film can be blunt. Is there anything else you wanted to note about the film or discuss? I liked your description of the film as “de-glamorized”. Maybe there’s a subgenre of revisionist crime stories we’ll see more of in the coming years.
Ben: I think I’d respectfully push back on your assertion that the film’s politics are incoherent or inept just because its comparisons aren’t a one-to-one match; in fact, I think the film functions better precisely because they aren’t so cleanly delineated. You are correct in that the film’s conception of the “little guy” is hardly sympathetic – all three of the men who rip off the mob at the beginning are sleazy, unintelligent, low-life criminals, certainly not worthy representatives of the average American, and I didn’t feel much sympathy towards any one of them when each eventually reached his untimely end. Yet I also don’t think Dominik is ever trying to say they even directly represent the average American, nor do I think he is trying to say the mob is directly analogous to the government or business. Rather, I think his framing of this violent crime story within the context of this tumultuous period is more of a microcosmic demonstration of how the national/global power relations of state and financial power mirror those of a common criminal, specifically within this time period. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kinds of people our three robbers are in this story; they are crushed under the uncaring boot of the powerful all the same. I believe Dominik is simply positing that this is how our country and world both work – these are the power relations that exist, even at this low level of mob life.
This message becomes most evident in the film’s incendiary final moments, wherein Brad Pitt meets Richard Jenkins at a bar to be paid for the assassinations he has committed for the mob. After Pitt notices the money is light, Jenkins remarks to him that his pay reflects “recession prices”, while Obama delivers an impassioned acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination on television. Pitt sneers when the soon-to-be-president preaches of an America of “one people”, delivering the following closing lines before the film cuts to black:
“Don’t make me laugh. We’re one people. It’s a myth created by Thomas Jefferson. […] My friend, Jefferson’s 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 was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out 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 fucking pay me.”
It’s a crude and cynical note to close the film on, but I think Pitt’s character is definitely getting at something. The power relations of wealth undoubtedly exist within America, and they only seem to be getting more transparent and pronounced with each subsequent crisis. Ultimately it’s why I think the film still plays so well today in a post-COVID world – just over two years ago when the virus first struck the country, while financial institutions were bailed out once again and the country’s wealthiest individuals increased their wealth by trillions of dollars, millions of Americans were left to suffer from unemployment, disease, homelessness, and hunger. While I personally disagree with Pitt’s sentiment that America is “just a business”, when these are the circumstances of daily life for a sizable portion of the country, I think his words sting with an uncomfortable and painful legitimacy.
Alex: Very true. Even if you don’t buy some of the film’s comparisons between politics and crime, power relations and exploitation are very apparent in both the film’s fictional mafia and in our very real local, state, and federal government/economies, and can’t be ignored. To your point, the pandemic had the effect of prompting Americans to challenge the status quo, both for good and for bad. In a time where we weren’t afforded our ‘bread and circuses’ of being able to go out and grab dinner, go to an amusement park, etc, our attention was drawn to what was happening to our friends and families at work and to the murder of George Floyd. Inequity becomes more apparent when there’s less distractions from looking away.
Relatively few films raise the mirror to tell us to look at America, ourselves, and hypocrisy. It can make for a controversial film, but it’s part of the reason why Killing Them Softly remains a relevant film today.