HBO’s The Sopranos was always at least tangentially concerned with articulating the similarities between the New Jersey mafia and the mechanics of more legitimate business operations. Even its relatively high-concept premise—a mob boss is forced to attend therapy sessions after stress impacts his health—is novel precisely because it humanizes an icon of the underworld, suggesting that, beneath the glamorous brutality of his profession, Tony Soprano was just a regular guy with regular problems, a boss like any other. But even when The Sopranos premiered, in 1999, the idea that crime was an endeavor no different than any other capitalist pursuit was hardly revelatory; that particular territory had already been mined, to varying degrees of success, by every remotely highbrow mob movie since The Godfather. The subject has been so thoroughly exhausted that, by 2012, there isn’t much left to say about the oh-so-obvious parallels between organized crime and capitalism, and despite how readily such subtext seems to lend superficial work an air of seriousness, its application is likely to be misguided—a case of making meager work appear more meaningful than it is.
Alas, the temptation to contemporize the cliché has proven irresistible to Andrew Dominik, whose Killing Them Softly reiterates the shopworn Sopranos thesis for a newly post-Occupy world. This is a film whose political dimension dictates rather than simply informs the drama, guiding the action without subtlety or grace, which is a problem only insofar as the political position it adopts is so embarrassingly simplistic and naïve. The message is explicated clearly, always bellowed to the rafters: Crime in America operates like a ruthless business because America operates like a ruthless business, and we’re all equally to blame for it all getting so fucked up, man. The scene of this on-the-nose social critique is established straight away by its disorienting opening sequence, wherein the camera stalks an ominously shadowed miscreant as Obama talks economic reform on the soundtrack, the sound and image interrupted by sudden cuts to title cards and credits. It’s 2008 and we’re deep in the throes of the campaign season, already feeling the reverberations of the recession, and though Dominik’s characters seem largely unaware of partisan politics, the machinations of the system can be felt all around them; wherever the action takes us, we’re never far from a politician on the radio or on TV, the latter always lingered over suggestively. The film doesn’t exactly pride itself on subtlety.
Killing Them Softly’s gauche finger-wagging may not be implemented with much nuance, but it’s nevertheless the distinguishing feature of an otherwise entirely facile genre picture, simply the latest entry in an endless line of crime thrillers too concerned with looking cool. Its wafer-thin narrative—a professional hitman (Brad Pitt) is tasked with eliminating a pair of hapless goons after they knock off a mob-run poker game—provides ample opportunity for needlessly stylized beatings and executions, the bulk of which are shot in slow-mo close-ups so slick they might as well be on loan from a bad alt-rock music video. Romanticizing violence in this way is nothing new, of course, but these garish embellishments are difficult to reconcile with the film’s hamfisted ideological motivations. It’s not clear, for instance, how a ’30s pop ballad overlaid atop a stylish slow-motion shooting functions in relation to the idea, oft repeated, that “America is a business,” which seems central to the film’s thesis; if anything, such ostentatious gestures undermine the film by making the business of killing seem uncomplicatedly seductive and appealing. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Killing Them Softly, despite loudly talking up its politics, doesn’t actually have anything of substance to say. It’s content instead to brandish clichés, shoehorning suggestions of depth into material that’s resolutely shallow. The film’s cynicism, like everything else, is nothing more than empty posturing, a fashionable pose adopted to ingratiate itself with a disenfranchised public.