The spectre of the 2008 financial meltdown is haunting us once again, this time cinematically with this year’s Arbitrage and Cosmopolis and 2011’s Margin Call and Wall Street 2 ushering in the post-American age by way of well-tailored, greedy bankers getting their comeuppance, in one way or another. But the way we projected them onto the screen reflects a sort of ambivalence in the way we think of them. They have been vilified in mainstream media and have been the collective scapegoat for all our economic woes, but we used to fall at the feet of these people whom we used to worship as the very embodiment of the American Dream. As such, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko or Richard Gere’s Robert Miller were portrayed not as magnates who were inherently, purely evil, but as once great men who fell from grace. The investment banker has become such a layered, enigmatic character in light of the financial brouhaha that it is hard to pin down his (he has always been a masculine character) place in our cultural consciousness. They have, in turns, been portrayed as heroes, villains, anti-heroes, anti-villains.
In Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, he teams up once again with Brad Pitt and transplants George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade onto 2008, right at the peak of America’s denouement, using the shady underground world of mobsters as a cruel metaphor to American capitalism. And this is in some ways an appropriate analogy: gangsters, just like the hacks from Wall Street of today, were also treated with a mixture, in equal parts, of admiration and fear in 50’s style noir films. Pitt’s James Cogan walks down the streets of Boston with his slick-back and his shotgun, treating every hit as a financial transaction. This is America, after all, where everything is a business and what matters most is that he gets paid.
This isn’t a completely perfect metaphor, but this movie is able to rise above it because of the elegantly constructed crime story that Dominik delivers. It harkens back to classic American gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Mean Streets, and the visual panache extends to the dry, dusty atmosphere that envelopes these movies, a pervading gloom and weariness that weighs down on the shoulders of these men as they constantly look behind them to see if they have a tail or if their cover has been blown. It also helps that Dominik cast Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini in pivotal roles, achieving a sort of intertextual unity as they brought with them traces of Henry Hill and Tony Soprano. Gandolfini, in particular, brings with him a compelling humanness as he plays a mobster in the middle of a divorce and his monologues provide some of the most tender scenes in the entire movie.
Cogan gets called onto the scene because of a burglary of a poker game. Mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires two hapless guns-for-hire Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob an underground card joint ran by a rival mobster, Markie Trattman (Liotta). The shadowy, faceless “mob” hires hitman Cogan to dispense of these folks who threw a wrench in their operations. He acts like the mob’s very own law enforcement agent, except that their laws make sure that crime does pay by establishing honor among this motley cabal of ex-convicts and gangsters. Dominik then teases out the movie’s plot through a series of fast-paced dialogue, where names get tossed around like a hot potato that at times, it’s hard to catch up with who’s supposed to be killing who. But the script is undeniably clever and absorbing, and all you have to do is go along with it.
A lot of what makes this film captivating rests on Dominik’s crisp editing and direction, which were also the elements that made his other feature The Assassination of Jesse James work. While the violent scenes are quite few and far between, each of them is given a raw, emotive power through the stylish camerawork that he does. In one particular scene, he uses slow motion to make an assassination seem like a well-choreographed, fluid dance, and in another, he shows a character getting beat up mercilessly without any frills, the minimalist direction giving it an almost unbearable brutality. This movie rises and falls with every gunshot and executed body; the pacing is almost immaculate.
Killing Them Softly, like its characters, is a bit disheveled but completely robust. Barack Obama’s presence lingers in the background, whether through a billboard or a televised speech, as his promise of change is juxtaposed with the breaking down of the American spirit. It is up to one’s political inclination how to read this movie, either as a reminder of a president’s failure or a potent future. But for James Cogan and the rest of the movie’s hitmen, all that matters is the here and the now, and that is a chillingly terrifying place.