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'Killing Them Softly' Captured the Rage and Resentment of Post-Recession Cinema

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | December 4, 2019 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | December 4, 2019 |


How angry were you this past decade? I spent much of it livid. Overwhelmed by student debt. Underemployed, working five jobs at the same time, sending off freelance pitch after freelance pitch after freelance pitch. Realizing that my rent would keep increasing, although my salary wouldn’t. Unable to buy a house. Unable to even think about saving up to buy a house. Furious about the Wall Street bailouts. Furious about the feeling that nothing much has changed in the past 10 years. Furious that we’re all just slowly, steadily drowning.

When I was putting together my Favorite Movies of the 2010s list for Pajiba, I realized a pattern: that many of the films I was including as my favorites captured various elements of this simmering, economically focused anger and resentment. Hell or High Water. Sorry to Bother You. Winter’s Bone. Green Room. Widows. Ingrid Goes West. The Farewell. So many of those films either directly address financial insecurity and instability, like Taylor Sheridan’s, Boots Riley’s, and Steve McQueen’s films, or acknowledge it through various character details. Ree’s mistaken belief that joining the U.S. Army will generate a windfall for her family in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Ingrid’s fascination with the influencer lifestyle, and how it seems to print money, in Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West. Billi’s passive-aggressive sparring with her mother about her credit card use in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. The fact that the Ain’t Rights only take that gig at the neo-Nazi hangout in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room because they’re broke and need cash to make it home to Virginia. And in 2019 alone, we had Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird, which encourages organized labor; Marty Scorsese’s The Irishman, which reminds us of the one-time power of unions in this country; and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which doesn’t fuck around when it’s time for Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona Vega to explain her reasoning re: ripping off rich guys:

“You see what they did to this country? These guys stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail. The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.”

All of this is to say that when considering the decade in film, I kept thinking of the lines “Fuck you, pay me.” You remember that from Marty’s Goodfellas, right?

Look, I’m not implying that all the movies I just listed treat money the same way. Billi’s inability to pay her rent is not the same thing as the Ain’t Rights stealing gas from cars in skating rink parking lots, which is not the same thing as Ramona drugging guys to lift their credit card numbers, which is not the same thing as Toby and Tanner Howard sticking up banks to pay their mother’s mortgage, which is not the same thing as Cash leading the equisapiens in open revolt against WorryFree. But all of these movies consider that “Fuck you, pay me” question — about the worth of work, about how we trade human dignity for money, about the increasingly unequal power dynamics at play in a capitalist system, and about how it feels to be wronged by the system you had once trusted to protect you. And the movie that picks up this mantle the best this decade, and which did not appear in our Best of list, which is why I’m penning this individual ode to it, is Killing Them Softly.

Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is just as much about American ideology as that film starring Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, and seemingly every other (white) actor working in Hollywood in 2007, but Dominik isn’t telling a story about Western myth or legend this time around. Killing Them Softly is contemporary, focused on our current concerns, and it is brutal, anxious, seething, desperate. People aren’t looking for fame, as Affleck’s Ford was in The Assassination of Jesse James, but scrounging to survive any way they can. And every choice they make is the wrong one, and every person they cross is just as close to the brink as they are. There’s a lot of bloodshed in Killing Them Softly, and it’s mostly for pathetic, financially motivated reasons, and that’s sort of the point.

The plot of Dominik’s neo-noir is set in motion with what seems like a simple heist during the 2008 presidential election campaign: Fresh out of jail convict Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and heroin addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) cook up a scheme to hold up a local illegal poker game organized by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie once robbed his own poker game, and he’s so well-liked that the drug dealers and assassins and crime kingpins and other big ballers who played poker with him let it go — once. But when the fairly anonymous Frankie and Russell do the job, and get away with it, suspicion immediately turns to Markie again — and nothing he can say or do will convince anyone that he’s innocent. He has to die simply because he made that first mistake and was forever afterward branded as a liar and a cheat, and of course Frankie and Russell have to die too, for daring to cross the Mafia, and to take care of it all, the unnamed Mafia representative who goes by Driver (Richard Jenkins) calls up assassin Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt).

Jackie likes to kill them softly, he says, as a way to sort of ease the person into their own death. Nothing too abrupt or torturous, nothing too grotesque. But, to be clear: He is still killing them, and although his style might be in direct contrast to other assassins — so unlikely the slovenly, perverse, past-his-prime Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini) — the man is still a murderer. And hell, a job is a job. So Jackie sets up Mickey, whom he realizes he can’t trust anymore, to go back to jail. He kills the accomplice to Russell and Frankie. He helps engineer Russell’s arrest. He kills Frankie, too. It’s all efficient, and ruthless, and by the end, in the final minutes of Killing Them Softly, he’s ready for his payment. He meets Driver in a bar to wrap up the job, and it’s then that the film’s two thorough lines intersect: That even the job of an assassin, one surrounded in romantic machismo, can be one where your bosses try to fuck you over, and that the current iteration of America is nothing but a soulless capitalist enterprise.

The juxtaposition here is genius: As newly elected President Barack Hussein Obama talks about the hope of a new America, Driver wants to bargain. He wants to pay out “recession prices” for the men Jackie killed; he talks about how this job is based on “relationships” (remind anyone of how crappy workplaces love to call their employees family while they deny them benefits?); and now that the work is done, Driver wants to change the terms. Recession prices! For men’s lives! But Jackie, to his credit, is having none of it. He scoffs at the idea of a united America. He scoffs at the idea of a promising future. He scoffs at Driver’s attempt to shortchange him. He has no interest in an understanding of America as a place where people can be equal, because he knows who he works for, and how they thrive off inequality. He knows the whims of rich men; he caters to them. He gets his hands bloody for them all the fucking time. And he will not be paid less than what he is owed.

“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.”

Dominik’s film came out on November 30, 2012, some weeks after Obama was elected to a second term, and I can understand its bristling dissatisfaction with how things were going in America at that point. I honestly appreciate its bleakness — and I still think its disgust with the American system resonates. We’re still dealing with fallout from the Great Recession; some would argue it never really ended. We’re still sinking under student loan debt. It’s still exceptionally difficult for working-class families to afford homeownership, while rents keep on ratcheting upward. The unemployment rate is down, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect how many people are underemployed or stringing together freelance gigs. The healthcare system is still fucked. The billionaires are still billionaire-ing; the gap between the 1% and the rest of us is getting wider all the goddamn time. And so when Brad Pitt, with smugness and malevolence and disgust, basically spits out “Fuck you, pay me”? That is the content I crave! Killing Them Softly may not have ended up on our Favorite Movies of the 2010s List, but for me it captured the decade like none other.

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Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: The Weinstein Company