So here’s the interesting thing about Killing Them Softly – it’s possibly the most intellectually demanding gangster film ever made. It certainly doesn’t take a genius-level political analyst to understand that the movie is about something other than the basic plot, as what seems like every scene has the tv or radio on in the background, littering the movie with references to politicians, and cementing it in the time leading up immediately to the 2008 presidential election in the United States. Many an audience member, however, may be at a loss as to what, precisely, the film is getting at.
The film revolves around the robbery of an illegal poker game, by a few men that think they will never be caught. The act sends the local illegal market into a screeching halt, as everyone becomes afraid to do business. In steps Brad Pitt, an unnamed enforcer who’s first act is simply and publicly disposing of the obvious perpetrator in the interest of appeasing the public. After this, he sets out to find and punish the true perpetrators, Vincent Curatola the mastermind, Ben Mendelsohn the junkie, and Scott McNairy, who’s not too bright, but a nice guy at heart. This retribution for their crimes against the established criminal order is precise, though not without setbacks – mostly in the form of inept employees, as most obviously personified by James Gandolfini – a hitman who, once sharp, has turned to alcohol and prostitutes, and is quickly disposed of by Pitt once he recognizes that.
The metaphor, which may actually be more obvious in synopsis than it was on the screen, best comes through in the relationship of Pitt’s character with Richard Jenkins, the representative of the “corporate model” of the organized crime in the city. The two hold regular meetings, mostly in cars, and while Jenkins has many reservations about the enforcer’s mode of operations, he ultimately lets the only man who seemingly knows what he’s doing take the reigns. In a final monologue, however, it is revealed that the market and the well-being of the organization he represents is the furthest thing from Pitt’s character’s mind, explaining that “America is business. Now [expletive deleted] pay me.” This, of course, is meant to represent the general cynicism of the financial institutions and the politicians in the aftermath of the economic crash.
All this is not very profound and could be seen as a very perfunctory analysis of the causes for the current economic climate. The value of the movie is, however, in the strength of it’s parable in illustrating, through the world of organized crime, today’s political realities. If nothing else, viewing onset of the crisis through this prism is a valuable thought experiment.
Do not be mislead into believing, based on the preceding description, that the film is dry, however. The movie is extremely visceral and bold at times, director Andrew Dominik alternating between concealing moments of brutality from the audience and showing every detail – from multiple angles, even. Even on the most basic level, it works as a thriller, if a somewhat oddly pedagogic and deliberately paced one.