When it comes to movie allegories, there are two basic species. The first and more common group contains films that evoke various deeper themes, leaving viewers, scholars and critics to speculate on their meaning and intent: Was Star Wars simply George Lucas holding up a sc-fi mirror to World War II, or was it a futuristic version of the classic Hero Cycle (or both)? Is the Matrix trilogy primarily a straightforward Resurrection allegory or a warning about the blurring of organic and inorganic intelligence (or both)?
The second group contains what you could call the no-doubters, i.e the original 1968 Planet of the Apes as an unmistakable riff on U.S. race relations in the wake of the Civil Rights era, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a slap-you-upside-the-head Christianity allegory.
Killing Them Softly, the second movie from the tandem of writer/director Andrew Dominik and leading man Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the first), falls squarely in the latter category. In fact, this just may be the most unsubtle allegory in the history of cinema. If this movie's allegory was a "reality" show, it would be "Jersey Shore." If it was an aging white pop star, it would be Madonna. If it was a jilted lover's lament, it would be Cee Lo's "Fuck You." You get the picture.
Ironically enough, the source story for the movie, the 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, doesn't appear to have an allegorical bone in its narrative body. But in Dominik's hands, this tale of a couple of idiotic thieves knocking off a mob-sanctioned poker game has become a scathing indictment of the 2008 financial crash and the poorly regulated financial system that allowed it to happen.
To be clear, Dominik makes no bones of his intentions, from start to finish. The film opens with a discordant scene that mixes audio from a 2008 Obama campaign speech cut into a jarring soundtrack, under an over-the-shoulder shot of a derelict stumbling through an abandoned cement causeway. At strategic moments throughout, we hear snippets of George W. Bush's speeches addressing the beginning of the massive and unstoppable crash. And the film's conclusion, played against Obama's inauguration address, revolves around a brilliantly acerbic undressing of both Obama's political platitudes on American unity and the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. Whew.
The financial powers-that-be are represented by the mafia (neat trick, there), specifically by their white-collar stooge lawyer. When a mob-sanctioned high-stakes poker game gets robbed for the second time, the lawyer engages hyper-articulate and amoral hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to track down the perps. But as Cogan quickly discerns, this isn't a simple retribution job. Confidence in the poker game has been shattered, nobody's gambling, nobody's making money and drastic measures are needed to get the ball rolling again (sound familiar?). In a move to restore confidence, Cogan identifies and sacrifices a scapegoat (in a rare show of restraint, Dominik did not make them siblings sharing the last name of Lehman).
It is at this point that the reality-based underpinnings of the allegory slip awaya metaphorical economic stimulus program apparently being out of even Dominik's creative reachand Cogan sets his sights on the actual perpetrators. The ensuing carnage fosters unrequited dreams of real-life retribution: What if Elizabeth Warren had been empowered to track down every scumbag financial institution that profited wildly on the unchecked real-estate bubble while simultaneously hedging its own bets on subprime mortgages? Granted, she probably wouldn't have left the kind of blood trail that flows in Cogan's wake, but it sure would have made for satisfying prime-time viewing.
Of course, Killing Them Softly is a movie as well as an allegory, and in that regard it's a damn good ride. The acting performances are phenomenal, led by Pitt at his self-assured best and augmented by fantastic supporting turns from Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini. Dominik's screenplay is a wonder, diving deep into the personalities and motivations of even the minor characters, and anchored by dialogue sharp and tough enough to make David Mamet weep. This rare level of character development sets a measured yet supremely engaging narrative flow, making the action scenesspare though they may be by the standard of crime thrillershugely, edge-of-your-seat impactful.
It's been said that allegories don't serve much purpose if their deeper meaning isn't readily evident. Dominik, Pitt and Killing Them Softly take that lesson to heart, proving that sometimes, subtlety can be overrated.
Killing Them Softly continues at the Wilma.