At first glance, Killing Them Softly looks like a typical gangster movie; big scary guys played by typecast actors like James Gandolfini run around with guns murdering those that have wronged them. Although some of the greatest movies of all time have followed that formula, to write this off as something so simplistic would be a disservice to what it actually is: a satire. Killing Them Softly isn’t always successful in what it’s trying to say, or even clear, but it’s always interesting. Even if you can’t decipher the meaning behind it, of which there will be wildly different analyses, the story is interesting enough to keep you entertained throughout its surprisingly short 97 minute runtime.
Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is a local mob man. He runs an underground gambling ring where many of the area’s heaviest hitters gather together to put their money on the line. With so much money floating around, however, it’s only a matter of time before someone attempts to stick them up. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) decide to do just that, hoping Markie will take the fall for one of his earlier transgressions. The local criminal organizations who take part in this game are obviously unhappy about what happened and employ Jackie (Brad Pitt) to find the culprits and take them out.
Where the satire comes in is its setting: 2008, during the McCain/Obama elections when the economy collapsed and the country found itself in a dire situation. In lieu of ambient music to heighten tension, many of the film’s scenes are punctuated with radio stations and television screens lingering on political pundits and speeches that are emphasizing the new financial panic we found ourselves in and how they wouldn’t let the prosperity of the few hurt the majority, all while robberies and murders of monetary purposes take place right in front of us. While the correlation between the real world economy and the fictional onscreen criminal economy are obvious, the emphasis behind it isn’t. If the film is trying to make a direct comparison between the two, it’s diluted with a skewed focus. After all, when our economy collapsed, it was the guilty stealing from the innocent, which resulted in vast numbers of people losing the majority, or all, of their lifetime savings. In the movie, it’s the guilty stealing from the guilty, which isn’t quite the same.
Yet I feel like the correlation is deeper than that. Speeches about how we need to take action to protect our economy play in the background as the gangsters in the film attempt to do the same to their own, but the gangsters aren’t necessarily protecting the overall flow of money. They’re more worried about their own well-being and their actions are motivated by personal gain. In 2008, when one of the most important elections our nation has ever had was on the horizon, the financial collapse led to presidential talking points, to agenda pushing, all so someone could become the next President of the United States. The film isn’t necessarily saying McCain and Obama didn’t mean well—both clearly wanted what they thought was best for this country—it’s just pointing out that their actions weren’t without selfish reasons.
All of this coming from a seemingly simple gangster movie is incredible to think about. Never before has there been such an effective mobster satire, if only because mobster satires are few and far between, though that no less diminishes the care put behind it. Killing Them Softly is both exciting and darkly humorous. It sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard to get you to root for certain characters—Jackie is as likable of a murdering gangster as you could possibly create, who even insists on tipping his waitress at a local coffee shop to help her get by during such hard times, but he’s hardly someone to root for—and a feeling of cynicism pervades its entirety (when one character calls Jackie “a cynical bastard,” you can’t help but feel like he’s personifying the movie itself through the character), but it’s that cynicism that gives the film its edge. Perhaps it’s Jackie’s final monologue that hits the hardest, as he discusses how even the most noblest of acts throughout history have been about greed and power: “America is a business,” he says, “now give me my fucking money.”
Killing Them Softly receives 4/5