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Killing Them Softly

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



Monsters is an extraordinary accomplishment for one reason. It showcases effects that would be astonishing in a multi-million dollar budgeted film, but does it with much less, hovering somewhere around the $100,000 range, well above the reported $15,000 (a number debunked by a recent interview I participated in with the director of the film, Gareth Edwards). But regardless of its cost, Monsters is a tremendous cinematic achievement, at least on a technical level.

Years ago, NASA sent a probe into space to study what they thought may be alien life. Upon reentry, it broke apart and scattered over Mexico. Soon after, new forms of life began to appear. The creatures, seemingly hostile to humans, were quarantined off in what was dubbed “The Infected Zone,” which is roughly half the country. Photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is one of the unlucky few in the area. He has been sent there to escort his boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) back to America, but after some chance occurrences strip them of their ticket home, they are forced to trek their way through “The Infected Zone” where the creatures dwell.

While that synopsis (and its ominous title) may make Monsters sound like a horror movie, it’s not. Like the best George Romero films, Monsters isn’t about the creatures. They merely exist as an outside factor in a story that is largely centered around humans. This is a tale of survival and connection. In fact, it’s more a love story than anything else and you’ll watch intently as Andrew and Samantha grow closer and closer throughout their journey. The bond they form as they wander through a ruined land covered with corpses, both human and otherwise, is touching to watch.

But despite all this talk of monsters, very few actually exist within the film, at least visually. This works much in the same way as Jaws, in that it keeps the monsters hidden as much as possible. It builds the mystery and suspense with only brief glimpses before completely unveiling them towards the climax. However, it works differently here. The feeling of awe and fright you’ll feel initially will be overcome by another emotion, one I hesitate to mention for fear of ruining anything. It’s this smart reversal of the expected that makes Monsters so fresh.

In fact, the most powerful moments in the movie don’t include the monsters at all. It’s the quiet moments that hit the hardest, like a scene over halfway through where the two protagonists, after going through some horrific experiences, climb an old Aztec structure and peer across the landscape where they can see the American border. Emotionally, Monsters works on every level and much of that credit is due to the two leads, who are quite convincing in their roles. While not exactly newcomers (both have had experience in other movies and television shows), they work well together and show considerable talent and chemistry together.

If it must be boiled down to one thing, Monsters is about the struggle of living. That struggle means dealing and coping with things beyond your control. This ideology exists with all living things and, filmically, does not limit itself only to the human characters. As Andrew and Samantha roam the wasteland on their way back to America, they learn new things about themselves as well as the creatures oozing around them. You’ll learn right along with them and by the end, you may be asking yourself who the true monsters really are.

Monsters receives 4/5