Saturday, September 26, 2015

Killing Them Softly

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is about politics, crime and business, and about how often we should use those words as synonyms. In the final scene, Brad Pitt (as hit man Jackie Cogan) makes the argument that “America is not a community, but a business (and I want to get paid!)” By then, I was convinced he had a pretty good point.

The first scene of the movie is about poverty and degradation, and it is linked to the final one with a story line familiar in mobster movies, but which nevertheless shocks with the pitiless and violent nature of its characters, who are not above begging for their lives, even though they are offended when they are doing the killing and the victim imposes on them by begging for theirs. Hence the title KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which Jackie professes is his approach to killing for hire, because up close and personal killing, unlike assassination at a distance, leads to all that begging and pleading and crying, all those appeals to God and mother, and that, to him, is “just embarrassing.”

We fade in on a city scene which could be anywhere USA, any dying city in the USA, where they don’t have gated communities and golf courses, but where there are cracked sidewalks and shotgun houses, warehouses and pawn and porn shops, South Boston or East St Louis, maybe North Philadelphia, places where you can have anything you want, if you have the bucks to pay for it, as long as you don’t wish for anything crazy, like ever leaving the blighted place for a better life.

Like in PULP FICTION, there is a lot of philosophizing done by the low and mid-level gangsters that inhabit this movie. Everyone has a philosophy about everything, often a pretty nihilistic one, but then again I guess coal miners are pretty pessimistic, too. These guys are the grunts, the day laborers, in a business more upfront about the violence inherent in it than most are. Pitt is fairly loquacious, especially for a hit man, which I, for whatever reason (older movies?) always thought were Clint Eastwood types (but not avengers) men with no names, strong, silent and sociopathic, if not outright psychotic.

The whole thing, of course, takes place at night, in freezing rain, down mean and lonely streets. And whenever a car radio plays, or characters talk in a bar, a politician is trying to make political hay off the 2008 bank bailout. It’s hard times in America, and apparently for the mob too.

The wasted and bleak guy walking down the wasted and bleak city street at the beginning is named Frankie, and he’s just out of jail, and is clear on how the only way he will keep from starving is by making a score. He meets up with Russell, a desperate heroin addict who is trying to make ends meet by stealing pure-bred dogs and taking them to Florida. One of the funniest scenes in the movie takes place when Russell tries to drive a car full of terrified dogs to Florida during a storm, and they shit all over and he can’t open the windows. It’s funny, and terrible, and the irony is that Russell is so disgusting that you can’t imagine a little (or a lot of) shit is going to make his smell, or situation, any worse.

Russell and Frankie meet up with Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) and Curatola brokers a scheme whereby the dynamic duo will rob a mobbed-up card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). They are all upset by the woeful state of the economy, and Johnny is insulted by Russell’s smart- ass attitude (he’s an Aussie, and maybe that accent makes things worse)—kind of like the way John Travolta gets pissed off at Harvey Keitel in PULP FICTION. Anyway, Markie already robbed his own card game once, and they figure he’ll get blamed for setting up this hit too.

It doesn’t work out exactly that way, and the movie is not suspenseful in the sense that it does not make you wonder if any of the major players are going to get out of it alive. These guys would have gotten caught, even if Russell had not been so stupid as to have talked about the job to a guy he wrongly thought he could trust (does someone always talk in these movies?)There is a kind of awful fatalism in this movie, in that there is only the game, the knock around life for these knock around guys, and you are playing against a house that never loses in the end.

Jackie is called in, and he recommends to Driver (Richard Jenkins), a kind of liaison between the suits and the soldiers, that they hit Markie, whether he is responsible this time or not, to “restore confidence” in the card game (like Bush and McCain exhorted us to remain confident in the Stock Market) . And pretty soon Johnny and Russell and Frankie are on the list, too.

Three scenes, one of drug use and two of violence, really hit me in the gut. In one, Markie gets hit repeatedly in his gut, standing in the freezing rain (for as long as he can stand up, anyway), and in the face too, and as he begs for mercy from his tormentors (‘it’s just business, Markie, take it like a man’) they become more and more incensed , turning what should have been a merely serious beat down into a near-fatal one. In another, Russell and Frankie converse while Russell is tripping on heroin, and the stylized way the point of view of the nodding Russell is shot makes the use of drugs look pretty seductive. And of course there is the scene where Markie is shot, in slow motion (a la NATURAL BORN KILLERS) as you watch rain drops fall on a spiraling bullet that imbeds itself in Markie’s head. Is this what they call pornographic violence? I am not sure, but there was something sexual and seductive about it, the absolute opposite of the scene where the beating is delivered, which was grotesque, pitiful, and deeply disturbing.

The rest of the movie is carried by the dialogue Jackie and Driver, and Jackie and Mickey (James Gandolfini), an out of town hitter hired to help out with the sudden need for four (count ‘em, four) hits. Mickey is depressed, addicted to booze and hookers, terrified of going back to the joint, unable to function. He has come to the conclusion that “none of it means anything.” And he looks like he means it. Tony Soprano knew he was in hell, perhaps, but if he was, he figured he was going to rule there. Mickey is just a tired and defeated foot soldier, and after Jackie sets him up to go down to his third felony, Jackie takes on all the killing himself.

Anyone who has ever gambled with cards or stocks knows that the only winners are the guys who run the game. The sub-prime mortgage crisis was merely an elaborate Ponzi Scheme made possible by loosening the regulations that kept investment and commercial banking separate. When it came down, we were told we needed to stay confident in the very scam that brought us down in the first place. The regular guys, men and women, water carriers, the non commissioned officers, the rank and file, paid by losing their homes and retirements.

In the end of this noir nightmare, the politicos blather on the bar TV as Jackie and Jenkins argue over his payment (Driver’s superiors are cutting back). Pitt, who has a genuine menace to him, is nevertheless not going to whack Jenkins and we know it. Jackie knows that he is even more replaceable than Jenkins is (Jenkins not being exactly the CEO of Murder Inc himself). The only real tension between the two comes when Jenkins tells Jackie not to smoke in his car, and Jackie ignores him and lights up. It’s anticlimactic and kind of silly, because you know they both know their place in the hierarchy, and this is real life ( not some movie). Jackie is not going to off Jenkins and take on the mob singlehandedly (what kind of confidence would that inspire?) That would be a different kind of movie.

In this movie, Jackie just wants to get paid. He says Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who sold freedom to a bunch of dopes so that he (Jefferson) could stop paying British taxes. For the average guy, winning the war was not winning anything. The movie is asking if we need to play the game at all. But robbing the card game, making a score, any kind of score, is all there is for the hoods of Skid Row. For us, the corporate shell game, the old bait and switch, is the only game too.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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