"America is not a country, it's a business. Now, pay me." - Jackie Cogan
There is only one theme at the heart of Andrew Dominik's new film Killing Them Softly (2012) and that is economics. Set in the era of the 2008 recession and during the days when President Obama was Senator Obama, the film follows Brad Pitt's character Jackie Cogan, a fixer-cum-hired killer as he tracks down the 'kids' behind a mob-protected card game heist.
The heist itself is probably the most interesting sequence in the film. It doesn't come anywhere near the pre-credits getaway sequence from Drive (2011) but it does generate a lot of suspense through carefully choreographed long takes and quick inserts. Once again, economy of filmmaking is what takes center stage in this sequence. The restraint with which Dominik is able to withhold run-of-the-mill mise-en-scène of the usual heist-at-gunpoint-sequence is commendable. While the film doesn't re-invent the gangster action genre, it manages to stay away from the beaten path and just enough so to come out feeling fresh.
Of course there are the long sequences of hardened men trash talking. An even longer one is where James Gandolfini's New Yorker Mickey reveals his backstory but ultimately, his character is not carried forward. Dominik only uses it to reveal instead, a lot more depth in Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan character. The coldness with which Cogan is able to take out his friends seems unnecessary but there is more to it than meets the eye. It is evident in all the talk where Cogan is reluctant to have Ray Liotta's Marky roughened up but he goes ahead and does it and then he is the one who insists that he has to be 'taken out', all the while saying that Marky is a 'nice guy' and that he 'knows him well'.
The America of Killing Them Softly is a country of individuals. Dominik uses the sound bites from various political speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to run a string of irony below the visuals that are being shown on screen. While the novel Cogan's Trade on which the film is based takes place in the 1970s and the era of Nixon, Dominik does a great job of updating it to the final days of Bush and the early days of Obama, an era of the falling tyrants and the rising of intelligent, global politicians. While Dominik refuses to present characters in pure black and white, he clearly does suggest that the best one can do is show a preference towards the lesser evil.
The film suggests that like Jackie Cogan, Obama and all things that his administration promised back in 2008 is more a relief from a clear political big-bully than a promise of liberation. Cogan doesn't take it upon himself to punish the offenders and restore justice. He simply does what his employers ask of him and wants to get paid for it. If the wrongdoers get their punishment in the process, then so be it. The reason why Cogan is able to wield the authoritative wand and decide who gets to be killed is because like Andrew Dominik, he doesn't do anything wrong. In a world where there is no clear moral centre, the one who doesn't do wrong automatically becomes the right. Obama didn't commission 'extraordinary rendition' and he didn't invade Iraq, so he must be good.
Another instance where this concept comes out well in the film is in the bar scene where Cogan finally gets to his man, Scoot McNairy's Frankie and gives him two choices: either to show him where Amato will be that evening and live or to keep silent and die in loyalty. Frankie clearly shaken says 'I don't know if I can do this!' and Cogan just says 'Do you want to do the other option then?' for which the answer is a clear 'No' and hence, the choice is made.
Coming back to economics, the film shows us the state the mob is in during the recession. The price on each assassination ranges anywhere between ten and fifteen thousand dollars. The total sum robbed in the card-game heist is about a hundred thousand dollars. 'Recession rates' as they are referred to in the film show us that the value of finances is abstract. In the world that the film is set in, people get killed whether it involves a hundred thousand dollars or a million. This is where the film achieves the high-point of its realism.
Dominik's skill as a director is very impressive. In only his third film in a 12-year long career, he is able to tell his story visually without the need for too much exposition. All the slow motion effects used to poeticize the brutal bloodshed in the film and the use of folk songs never feel out of place. But will Killing Them Softly change the way mob films are made in America? Not remotely. The guns are still there, the drugs are still there, the prostitutes...but for once, they don't feel gratuitous. Like Jackie Cogan says "In America, you're on your own", the characters of the film are on their own. Each of the all-male cast is never shown with any wife, mother, brother, father or friend. They are all alone. The only time there is a friendship even suggested, separation is inevitable. Like Frankie and Russell or Frankie and Amato or even towards the end, Frankie and Jackie Cogan. All these friendships are ended violently. Even Marky and New York Mickie are shown as 'friends' of Cogan but he gives them up in a heartbeat. To top it off, the only time women are shown on screen, they are prostitutes and when referred to in dialogue, they are unfaithful wives or lovers.
At 97 minutes, the film is all economics. Dominik himself has been heard saying that the film is a 'pop tune'.