Much content has been written recently reviewing and discussing films like “Outbreak” (1995) and “Contagion” (2011). In times like these, it is intriguing to hypothetically compare and contrast pop culture’s depictions of our environment to our actual situation. Seeing if artists had the foresight to predict what was coming, not just culturally, but also politically and technologically, has this large cultural appeal. We prop up these works of art for their ability to capture the future, praising them for their accuracy. The articles we currently see are just a mutation of a long-running trend about “How x is the thing that properly describes our time now.” These films typically take strong stances on grand topics such as race, technology, wealth and constructs of division and power in the United States. If a film is able to depict our time, it’s equally comforting and discomforting, giving us relief because we can tell ourselves that we, the viewer, saw this coming, but at the same time, it’s terrifying because it makes the fictional suddenly very real.
All of this is to say that if we are in the midst of discussing things that foreshadow our current climate, there’s one more film that needs to be added to the list: Andrew Dominik’s 2012 film “Killing Them Softly.” Dominik is most famous for directing films and television shows such as “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) and “Mindhunter” (2017–), so it’s safe to say he has a particular wheelhouse. Much of Dominik’s work feels like it’s been lost to time, which would allow you to say, “Well, then it’s probably not as relevant as it seems,” but that isn’t the case with “Killing Them Softly.”
From a pure Hollywood pop culture standpoint, the cast makes this film interesting. It has everything from the two of the best current character actors, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, whose names you might not recognize but once you see them you’d immediately react, “Ohhhhh that guy!” It has the legendary James Gandolfini performing in one of his final roles ever before his tragic death, Richard Jenkins as a liaison, Ray Liotta and last but not least, Brad Pitt in the lead role. This film marks an interesting time for Pitt as it is the beginning of the era of Brad Pitt: actor and producer. In the time since, his production company, Plan B, has helped produce films like “Moonlight” (2016), “Okja” (2017) and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019).
What makes “Killing Them Softly” relevant, though, is not just its cast but its politics. Backdropped with the financial collapse of 2008, the film tells the story of two convicts, played by McNairy and Mendelsohn, who rob a high-stakes back-alley poker game and the fallout from it. Higher-ups who have lost their money hire Brad Pitt, playing hitman Jackie Cogan, to find the two men and kill them. The characters are all desperate and at the end of their ropes; McNairy’s and Mendelsohn’s characters are recently out of prison and have no opportunity for any sort of financial growth, Jenkins’ character needs a job performed and has to please people we never even see and Gandolfini plays a depressed hitman who drowns his sorrows in booze and women.
Cogan is there just to try and clean up the mess, but as he works to find the two thieves, the situation only gets messier. Ray Liotta’s character, Markie Trattman, hosted the poker night that was robbed under his watch, not to mention that the last time he hosted a game he hired people to rob it so he could keep all of the money. In this dark underground world, the rules state that when something bad happens someone must be punished, and given the circumstances, the blame falls on Markie. Jackie murders Markie in a hyper-stylized slo-mo drive-by shooting. Here the political metaphor rings clear: The system dictates that in a time of crisis someone must shoulder the burden, and just like in the financial collapse, the wrong people are punished. We hear clips throughout the movie of press conferences from then-President George W. Bush discussing the bailouts of large financial institutions, we see Markie die for something he didn’t do, and whether you agree with it or not, the comparison connects.
This all comes to a head in the final scene, arguably the film’s best and most relevant, when Jackie collects his payment from Richard Jenkins’ character. The two squabble as Barack Obama’s victory speech from 2008 blares out from the television. “Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America,” Obama says, which Cogan then rolls his eyes at. After counting his payment, Cogan realizes he’s been swindled and not paid the agreed-upon amount. Jenkins responds that these are “recession prices” and calls Cogan self-centered, saying that the world of murder-for-hire is a “business of relationships” and does not see the irony in that at all. The final part of Obama’s speech rings out, speaking about community and how we’re all one. Cogan, during the final speech, tells Jenkins that this idea of America as one nation together is a lie, a construct built by rich colonial white men who wrote inspirational words like “all men are created equal” just so that they didn’t have to pay taxes, that America is a business where you are on your own and then demands to be paid.
It’s a somber and resounding end, one that sticks into your brain given how strong a stance it takes. “Killing Them Softly” operates on a cynical but arguably fair mindset, one that believes that the bailouts from the economic collapse forced American people to fend for themselves and take on consequences they did not deserve. With the fear of potential economic hardship looming, and discussions of company bailouts again, “Killing Them Softly” feels like an ominous premonition, one that can serve as a reminder of our past and a warning for our future. “Killing Them Softly” is now available on Netflix if you want to check it out.