Andrew Dominik's 2012 American film Killing Them Softly is a screen-adaptation of George Higgins' 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade. Dominik's screenplay sets the action in modern America during the 2008 election campaign, which serves as a backdrop to the action of the film and allows both director/screenwriter Dominik and his cast of characters to ironically and wittily juxtapose their own agendas, ends and pursuits with those of the political world. Indeed, the film's subtext or undertone is really as pronounced as the main drama, paralleling the narrative in the final race to the showdown: the execution of the robbers of the card game and the election of a new ring leader (aka President of the United States). This paper will show how Dominik uses the underground world of organized crime to parallel and criticize the state of American politics and economics.
Storytelling, Editing, Style and Directing
The storytelling is fairly straight-forward and simple, for the film is essentially stripped of all non-essentials. Yet while though the narrative is thematically driven, it does contain the basic plot points and arc of a standard genre film. The first conflict occurs immediately: it is the question of whether or not to do the robbery. The conflict is resolved when the decision is made and the robbery is performed. The robbery, however, is a false resolution, as the viewer quickly realizes when the Enforcer (played by Brad Pitt) enters the narrative to the tune of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." The true resolution occurs at the end of the film's second Act, leaving only a brief denouement for the third Act, in which the moral of the story is illustrated by the Enforcer. It is from beginning to end an ironic story, but the full force of the irony is not realized until the Enforcer bluntly expresses it in very precise terms and the credits roll to the tune of "Money (That's What I Want)." In the light of the film's ending, a closer analysis of the narrative allows the story's satirical edge to be better seen.
At the center of the tale are two Aussies named Frankie and Russell, ex-cons in search of the only American Dream worth anything in a crime film: a quick score. The way to the score (the robbery of a mob-protected card game) is presented to them by Johnny Amato, who has the inside scoop on both the players and the reason why the heist should be pinned on Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), allowing them to go scot-free: Markie has already confessed to robbing his friends once, and if someone were to rob them again they would immediately suspect Markie. This makes sense enough to Frankie and Russell, who don't mind letting Markie take the rap. Their concern is primarily for their own well-being, which connects them to the arch-politicians McCain and Obama advertised so smugly and smilingly in the opening scene when Obama's voice-over address in tones of nauseating "sincerity" (yet sounding more sinisterly gangster-ish and strong-arming than the gangsters themselves) reveals the first words of the film: "America…I say to the people of America."
Even the opening credits, which appear in staccato fashion support the film's irony. The first shot is from under an overpass, with the cold light of day appearing like the light at the end of tunnel. Scraps of newspaper litter the road, sidewalk and grass. The sound is balanced between applause for the rhetoric of the politician's non-diagetic speech and the other non-diagetic: ominous boiler room type ring, sliding into discordance and ambient noise, as though the death knell were tolling for the American Dream that both the small-time criminals of the underground and the big-time criminals of the political circus represent. The light at the end of the tunnel over which Obama is heard saying, "America…" cuts to black, over which the ominous ring is heard and ominous production credits are displayed such as: "An Inferno Presentation" and "In Association with Annapurna Pictures and 1984 Private Defense Contractors," a reference to both the Hindu goddess of the harvest and Orwell's Big Brother -- the modern statesman-class criminal.
The scene cuts back to the silhouette of a figure, shoulders hunched, emerging from the shadows of the overpass into a debris-strewn street, with the words of Obama sounding in the viewer's ears: "This moment…" ironically juxtaposing the momentousness of the statesman-class criminal's rhetoric with the small-time underground criminal's momentousness in a world of trash, disorder and emptiness. The figure emerges into daylight to the sound of more ecstatic applause and the Presidential candidate asserting that this moment "is our chance to -- " but the word "to" is cut in upon and not given full pronouncement. Instead, the director cuts to black again with the title card "Killing" in bold white letters. The message is clear: as Dominik himself stated in an interview, this film is going to be a kind of "political cartoon" -- except this cartoon is no laughing matter (Radish, 2012). A frame or two of the scene continues but not long enough for anymore than a blip of applause and half of what sounds like the word "come" to be heard overtop mere fraction of a glimpse of the silhouetted figure still walking. Back to black goes the screen with the word "Them" in the same bold white letters. Again, another frame or two of the figure, and sound of Obama firmly ending his declaration with the word, "Enough!" This time, however, Obama's voice-over is heard as the camera cuts to black and displays the final word of the title, "Softly." More ironic juxtaposition, more social, political, and economic commentary. But this is the work of an auteur. Andrew Dominik is not trying to be subtle. He means to be overt. The film is as in-your-face with its message as the "message" of the politicians is in any given election cycle.
Auteur Theory: Analysis of Textual Themes
Dominik is surely "an artist, an auteur, (whose) films should be the expression of his individual personality" (Pezzotta, 2010). Thus, if one approaches the film from the standpoint of auteurism, Killing Them Softly becomes more than another mere crime/gangster film. Moreover, what may be taken as pretensions by some critics become gateways into the director's mind-set. As Mekado Murphy (2012) points out, "the struggle to win in a nation consumed by loss is one of the themes at the center of Killing Them Softly." An iconic analysis of textual themes in the film help show how Dominik's composition, framing, angle of view, and depth of field contribute to the theme of loss mentioned by Murphy and the overall meaning of specific images in the film.
For example, the opening shot in which Frankie wanders the deserted and badly littered streets, while sound-bites of political rhetoric act as incomplete non-diagetics, uses landscape, camera angle (intimate) and composition to create a desolate urban world that is as familiar to any classic moviegoer as modern politics is to any practiced American voter. The wasteland of America, with its small-time hoods, is the reality: the message of the competing billboards hanging over the street, McCain with his smarmy neoconservatism and Obama with his promise of "Change," are the fiction. But the sound, of course, is the sound of people applauding a fiction. The reality on the street is as empty of life as the words of the politicians -- the only difference is that no one is around or wants to see it. In spirit, they (and the viewer, who is meant to identify with the silhouetted figure of Frankie) are as downtrodden and desperate as the man on the street, whose expression when it is shown is ponderous and pained, dulled by the resonating words of some hollow rhetoric/dream -- or of some distant bell tolling for him (and us).
Dominik as an auteur can be seen explicitly here: the light falls down upon the silhouetted figure in old blue jean coat with large collar while the rhetoric of pat, American sentiment continues ("To make of our own lives what we will"), itself an infinitive disconnected from a subject -- a bodiless predicate floating aimlessly (just as aimlessly, in fact, as the figure in the blue jean coat appears to be wandering). Dominik employs sound, scenery, character, and text to create one single, multi-layered scene conveying multiple meanings at once. The director engages the audience's sympathy with the lone, cold, hunched-up man in a world of scraps and debris. He engages the audience's intellect by throwing at it conflicting ideas: (political) rhetoric vs. (literary) subversion. He engages the dramatic sensibility by splicing it all together with uneven (yet perfectly timed) images and sounds, fragments playing off one another, providing the context for the narrative that is to follow.
Although the characters of the film appear to go against the conventional roles usually played by the starring actors, Dominik insists that he was "kind of typecasting. I…