‘Killing Them Softly’

Let’s Drive 1970s American Cars And Shoot People

This is a weird one. It’s a cross between a badly formed Quentin Tarrantino movie and that rather tedious Ryan Gosling hit movie ‘Drive’, but it stars Brad Pitt doing his Tyler Durden nihilist routine. The 1970s Amrrican cars feature big time in this film so if you are into spotting old Cadillacs, Dodges, and Oldsmobiles, this film will tickle your car porn fancy.

As usual, I issue my spoiler alert. But if you’re the type that you’ve read the book and want to see this film, then I don’t know what my spoiler warning does for you.

What’s Good About It

The film is unsentimental about the murder and mayhem that goes on. There’s no clever irony about the violence, there’s no big speeches as people kill one another. This is refreshing because it shortens an otherwise meandering story about gangsters taking care of business.

Some of the dialogue scenes between Brad Pitt’s Jackie and James Gandolfini’s Mickey are genuinely disturbing and profane. Gandolfini’s mien is made for this kind of mobster prattle. It’s a shame he missed the glorious parts of Scorsese’s career. Ray Liotta also makes an appearance as exactly the kind of gangster he always plays – callow obnoxious, patronising and pathetic. He usually mixes up the combo of the elements, but they’re all there.

Richard Jenkins is back working with Brad Pitt, and that alone gives the film echoes of ‘Burn After Reading’ where the two of them played “the league of morons”; which probably isn’t fair for this film – That film was too bloody funny and you keep expecting the dialogue to veer that way but it doesn’t.

Ben Mendelsohn as the transplanted Aussie derelict Russell is very funny. he totally eats the scenes he’s in with Scoot McNairy playing Frankie.

The juxtaposition with the 2008 election of Obama vs McCain offers up a very big question mark until the very end. It’s a very good speech. In that sense it lends so much meaning to the violence and carnage in the film.

What’s Bad About It

The system where a film can only be put together if stars are involved  makes it so that you can tell the relative importance of characters by who is cast in the part. It helps in one way that you know who the main character is because, look, Brad Pitt is playing him; but when you see some of these other actors, you know they’re just going to get killed.

You just know Ray Liotta’s going to get killed when it is revealed he masterminded a heist on his own card game. Nobody can come back from that kind of caper, no matter how funny, but at the same time knowing it’s Ray Liotta’s character, you know he’s going to buy a small plot of land with a tomb stone on it. Which takes the surprise out of it. In a sense, regardless of the plot, by casting to type, the film gives away the relative strategic portions of the story. The casting is in of itself one big spoiler.

I don’t know how to fix this, but it’s particularly a pronounced problem in this film.

What’s Interesting About It

The scene of Jackie’s hit on Ray Liotta’s Trattman is the most stylised street corner hit. The slow motion and the CGI bullets and slowly shattering glass make it the kind of ballet of action reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ movies. The irony of the beautiful music as the slow motion unfolds the grisly action is played out to the utmost anatomised detail. You wonder if as an audience we will ever tire of this sort of thing, or whether in the future these sequences are going to be even more stretched out and slowed down and made even more ironic with say, lullabys playing. I guess that’s the ramification of the style.

Economic Crisis

The novel the film is based on was apparently published in 1974 but the film was brought up to date because the director Andrew Dominik saw a parallel in the economic crisis in the book with the Global Financial Crisis unfolding around him. It’s an interesting draw because in the film, Trattman basically robs the table where everybody is playing which shuts down all the card games in the city because nobody can trust anybody. Then, gradually trust comes back as the games start up again and everybody goes back to normal. They even laugh it off.  And if that isn’t what;s happening with the banking and financial sector, then I don’t know what a better description would be.

The way the story plays out, the inferred future is that the likes of Goldman Sachs will be pinned for future crises because next time, people will have to blame somebody and they will blame Goldman Sachs automatically. The story seems to be saying that if you rob your own card game, then you have to get out of town and not stay playing. Well, Goldman Sachs and the like have stayed int own to keep playing. It will be interesting to see if the next Government sitting at the crisis will accept the “too big to fail” argument, or whether they will take Jackie’s advice and make a showing of Goldman Sachs by metaphorically taking them out and shooting them. In any case, the GFC has put a bullseye on the backs of the banks.

The Cars

The 1970s cars are a bit of a curiosity. They’re probably the last generation of cars where American design was unhindered and broad. During the 1970s with two oil shocks and competition from fuel efficient Japanese cars turned 1980s American cars into ugly austere boxes. Compared to those, the unfettered lines on the Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Chryslers and Fords do hark back to a different time when America was confident in its power. It’s the kind of industrial design that’s in line with Fender and Gibson and Gretsch and Guild guitars. The designs have broad, powerful strokes with ample, wasteful use of space. You can hide a corpse in the trunk easily.

This is perhaps why these gangsters in gangster movies prefer these cars. The trunk space and sense of waste.

The juxtaposition with the Obama election then has greater meaning because in the bail out process, the US Government temporarily nationalised GM in order to save it, restructure it and put it back on its feet.

The strange thing about our contemporary world is that GM probably do make decent cars for the American market today, and yet the GFC ripped through its market and distribution disproportionately. By bailing out the Big 3, the Obama administration essentially underlined that if banks were too large to fail, they weren’t going to survive by ripping the heart out of American manufacturing.

The symbolism of these dinosaur 1970s cars driving around then is much more than style for this film.

Thomas Jefferson And The Speech

The film is very pointed about what America is. The closing speech by Jackie is emblematic of the contradictions inherent in American society. It’s really quite a cool speech. The film is worth catching for that moment as it ends abruptly right there.

The Americana shown in this film is quite something.

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