Review: Killing Them Softly love-hates America

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We’re nearing the 2008 Election and starving crook Frankie (Scoot McNairy) just gave up his working class aspirations and returned to the Dry Cleaner with “all the angles.” There he learns about a card game they can heist while someone else takes the fall.

Bigger than honor among thieves is justice among criminals, and in this Boston equivalent (the film was actually shot in New Orleans) Dillon (Sam Shepard) is the name spoken in hushed tones. Irony is: this underworld is bigger than the neighborhood, which makes the biggest of the baddies a middle manager.

Richard Jenkins, playing the ambassador of a committee “with a totally corporate mentality,” meets with Dillon’s right hand man, Jackie (Brad Pitt), in an Acura beneath an overpass. The directive is to clean up the mess—it’s an isolated order (just kill the fall guy and the three behind the heist) but they have to rely on their extended organization to do it, which means this drama about strategically unimpeachable crooks and fearsome hitmen is also about our nation’s fundamental lack of leadership.

Director Andrew Dominick (Assassination of Jesse James) pipes in GW Bush’s speeches out of every possible speaker, incessantly reminding us the economy is broken and the one guy we can blame won’t man up to face the failure. What Dominick does is invert a common perspective: these guys aren’t turning to crime as a last resort to survive, they’re part of an economic system. We can’t look upon them with the same pity as kids at the mercies of bad neighborhoods—these aren’t the victims of their universe at all: they’re its victors.

It's not for nothing we're itching to watch Ray Liotta get shot. In Goodfellas he was the face of entrepreneurial spirit in mobster form, and he earned the symbolic white picket fence for his crimes, unlike thousands of G-Rated participants in "free enterprise." Suckers. It's a great feat of stunt casting to see Liotta get his, and for a crime he didn't commit, but Dominick is after more than a reference to capitalism or Scorsese, his proclamation is bigger and more cynical, but also more nuanced. You can feel the sense of 70's era alienation, something surely handed down from 1974 George Higgins book "Coogan's Trade," on which this was based.

It's something to consider the next time we suffer another film about the villainy of corporations--there are free men out there, and who says "free" is inherently good?

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