Is the U.S. a community or a business? 2012's Killing Them Softly is a small story about trouble between a few gangsters in New Jersey but it quite bluntly sets itself up as a commentary on the U.S. by setting the story in 2008 and featuring footage from Obama's presidential campaign and the old televised fumbling of George W. Bush. The film doesn't stay entirely on point, which was okay with me, because what it drifts into is some peculiar and fascinatingly sensuous noir visual and audio storytelling.
The sound design on this film is almost too good, finding new ways to make the sounds of punching really tear through and gunshots to reverberate. It's so carefully constructed it calls too much attention to itself at times. But good is good.
The soundtrack is also really good, featuring The Velvet Underground and Nico among other excellent choices. The usual spectre of Goodfellas that inevitably hangs over any modern gangster film is especially palpable, especially since Ray Liotta's in the movie, playing a guy not all that different from Henry Hill.
He plays a guy named Markie who runs card games for the mob. The first part of the film follows the point of view of two young men, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who rob Markie's game, then the latter portion of the film stars Brad Pitt as Jackie who's in charge of cleaning up the mess created by the robbery, most notably by tracking down and killing the people involved and the people that are widely believed to be involved. Because, since reputation is so important for the mob, as Jackie explains, if someone is widely believed to have robbed them, it's as good as if they did.
The scenes between Frankie and Russell are funny, the kinds of scenes that exploit these dopey scumbags for their endlessly ornery dialogue and bullshit posturing. The Brad Pitt segment is slower and not as funny, especially when Mickey, played by James Gandolfini, comes onto the scene.
He tells a story that clearly parallels one told by Russell to Frankie about meeting a beautiful woman. Both Russell and Mickey talk about having a boner immediately on meeting the woman though with Russell one isn't sure whether it's just a bullshit yarn he's spinning. Mickey is so drained of any sort of drive to prove himself one suspects he's telling the truth. The juxtaposition suggests that Mickey is what Russell would eventually become.
Gandolfini is very good in the film and director Andrew Dominik spends a lot of time with him where the plot doesn't appear to be moving forward, just watching Mickey reminiscent and verbally abuse his prostitute. When Jackie observes that, for a man who's been getting prostitutes and booze for days, Mickey's sure doing a lot of complaining, Mickey explains he paid money so he has a right to complain. He misses the point entirely of Jackie's comment; instead of observing that he's failing to enjoy the pleasures of life, he focuses on his rights, based on what he paid. This scene ends up being thematically rather crucial in the conflict between the definition of the U.S. as a community versus business which Jackie makes explicit at the end.
Of course, it's a central theme to most gangster films, from The Godfather to Scarface--how cosa nostra, this supposed extended family that's supposed to be more about heart than the cold, bureaucratic government, inevitably ends up falling prey to greater cynicism, and how the people who seek power this way lose sight of their humanity.
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Misplaced in kitchen pots the cat opines.
Arranged in order made by medal men,
On stoops of mushless sleds reclines
The scary floating Macy's poker pin.
A blue embossed represented mirror
Affixed to yellow fleur-de-lis at dawn
Returns the sacrifice made in furore
And cooked in pasta sauce and parmesan.
A blur of pages crossed the water south
Along the delta, turning to the rocks
A crumbling glove on ghostly hand, the mouth
Of salmon pulled into the river docks.
A millipede impressed a salty mine.
In cheer, the veins are sweating silver brine.