Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012)

The crime movie Killing Them Softly was widely criticized for the heavy-handed use of news clips and speeches about the financial meltdown that make diegetic and non-diegetic appearances in likely and unlikely places. Disjointed pieces of Obama speeches are inserted into the opening title sequence, news reports play on the radio as hit men drive around looking for their mark; breaking news from a cable station plays on a TV at an illegal gambling joint that is being robbed. A connection to depression era gangster films is suggested through the sardonic use of depression era songs. “Life is a Bowl of Cherries” plays on the soundtrack to underline the temporary success of a holdup man, and later “It’s only a Paper Moon,” plays when the delusion that he will get away with stealing from the mob ends with his execution. [click here to see visual essay on films related to Killing Them Softly]

Frankie (Scoot  McNairy) has a lot on his mind  ... … but it’s probably not the upcoming election.

We wuz robbed: On the TV in the background, President Bush waxes poetic about the unfolding financial meltdown while Frankie and another lumpen street thug (Ben Mendelsohn) advise the gamblers to remain passive while they are being robbed because after all, “it’s only money.” 

References to the financial meltdown aside, the movie is a faithful adaption of the 1974 dialogue-driven George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade. Treading familiar territory, the film emphasizes the parallels between the social hierarchies of an organized criminal enterprise with those of a corporation. Like the previous cycle of anti-business films written about by Lopate, the top decision makers, referred to as “they” or “them,” are absent and are represented by a surrogate named Driver (Richard Jenkins). Referred to as “counselor” on at least one occasion, Driver behaves like a public relations officer who wishes to project a veneer of respectability onto an illegal operation that out of necessity involves beatings and murder. The fastidious Driver, always dressed in a business suit, has a secretary and asks a hit man not to smoke in his car. Concerned with the cost of doing business he tries to save money by negotiating for a lower cost of a hit and wants a hired assassin to fly coach.

Driver meets with Jackie Cogan (Brad Pit), who plays the role of middle management charged with overseeing the dirty work that will be necessary. Driver wants Jackie to “talk” to Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) about the holdup of a gambling operation Trattman runs. Jackie goads Driver into defining “talk,” which of course means “beating.” After Jackie makes the argument that it is more logical, efficient and humane to just kill Trattman, Driver explains that “they’re squeamish” about murder and have a “total corporate mentality.” As the Jack Nicholson and Paul Bethany characters’ speeches imply in A Few Good Men and Margin Call, there is a de facto mechanism of plausible deniability in place: The corporate executives need to put a distance between the official policy (held by Driver and those he represents) and the actual execution of a tacit policy (as performed by Jackie and those he hires).

The Annual Performance Evaluation- Jackie sends two laborers (Max Casella and Trevor Long) skilled at the art of ‘talking,’ to visit Trattman (Ray Liotta). The conversation gets out of hand and Trattman is badly beaten.

Two young upstarts who are cast as lumpen street thugs performed the actual hold up. One’s a stoner (Scoot McNairy), the other a downright drug addict (Ben Mendelsohn). Every action that they take is a poorly planned scheme to get money that’s doomed to failure or just absurd. One is eventually arrested; the other murdered by Jackie who winds up carrying out all of the murders because he can’t seem to get good help. He tries hiring New York Mickey (James Gandolfini), a professional assassin, but Mickey is so thoroughly corrupted by a life of vice that he cannot be depended upon to do his job.

Good help is hard to find: Assassin New York Mickey (James Gandolfini) complains about the service he received from a prostitute, refuses to tip her, and then fails to do the job he was hired to do.
If you want something done right, do it yourself. ... ... In a nicely choreographed slow motion sequence, Jackie kills Trattman, softly.

All of the meetings with Driver, in fact, take place in the car that he is driving except the last, which takes place in a bar. Jackie passes through a shower of ostensibly Fourth of July fireworks and enters the bar where candidate Obama is making a speech. Jackie is upset because he feels he was short-changed by $15,000 for the three murders he committed. Driver tells Jackie that “they” told him to tell Jackie that those were “recession prices.” Driver tries to explain that the business they are in is a “business of relationships” and aligns himself, bizarrely, with Obama’s optimistic message coming from the TV. Jackie’s not buying the message and connects it to Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls a “rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits.” He argues that Jefferson was a hypocrite who used “lovely words” about equality to arouse “the rabble” and then allowed the children he fathered with Sally Hemings to live in slavery; likewise, Jackie asserts, Obama is using words to create an illusion of community that does not actually exist. With the “yes we can” chant blaring from the TV, Jackie, and the movie, imply no we can’t. The movie ends with Jackie’s declaration:

“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country; it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”

The cynical worldview presented in Killing Them Softly is a logical expression of the disengaged and disenfranchised, a natural reaction to dog-eat-dog inequity embedded in a have and have-not economy. The film accepts as a deterministic given, the every-person-for-themselves/might-makes-right philosophy of pessimism that is the child of this lumpen version of social Darwinism.

Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, 2012)

Cosmopolis is essentially a road trip movie in which Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old asset manager on a mission to get a haircut, takes the viewer on a tour of Manhattan that pits New York, the center of global capitalism, against New York, the city of neighborhoods. Though the distance traveled is only a few miles, the journey is epic and cataclysmic. [click here to open visual essay on films related to Cosmopolis]

The dialog, often described as stilted or stylized, is taken nearly verbatim from Bronx-born Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. As a consequence, some criticized the film, a large percentage of which takes place within the confines of a stretched limo, as talky and claustrophobic. But Cronenberg turns the limousine into a 360-degree movie set that at various moments serves as a meeting room, doctor’s office, bedroom, or bathroom while assuming the ambiance of a space ship, game parlor, or tomb. Additionally, when the windows aren’t set to darkroom black, the limo functions as a screening room in which its occupants passively witness urban normality devolve into the chaos visible through the vehicle’s one-way glass panes.

Smile, capitalism loves you: The grill of this limo is the first image we see in the movie. The aesthetic weight of Cronenberg’s movies often masks his sense of humor. I don’t always get the joke, but it usually makes me smile.
Capitalism loves you too: Kanye West apparently replaced a section of his bottom teeth with a diamond studded pressurized carbon bridge, while Katy Perry took the more conservative approach to facial branding with a jewel encrusted clip-on celebrity grill that spells out the name of one of her hit songs, Roar. One of Cosmopolis’ themes includes the impact tremendous wealth has on identity formation in young adults, and the role that the cult of (celebrity) personality plays in that formation. The theme was further explored in Cronenberg’s next movie, Map to the Stars (2014).

Torval (Kevin Durand), Eric’s personal bodyguard, tries to dissuade the strangely distant, emotionally deadpan Eric against the trip to the family barbershop. With the U.S. president in town, Torval warns that they will “hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches.” More importantly, there is a lone assassin on the loose threatening to kill Eric. Eric doesn’t care; he wants a haircut. His vehicle becomes a traveling office in which he meets with, among others, his twenty-something IT security analyst (Jay Baruchel), a 22-year-old currency analyst (Philip Nozuka), and a 41-year-old woman (Juliette Binoche) who buys art for the young billionaire. During the course of these meetings there are numerous philosophical discussions about technology, security, the acquisition and meaning of wealth and art, and the nature of reality. We also learn that Eric is in danger of losing his entire fortune because of a bad bet he’s made against the yuan.

Poor little rich boy: Maybe Torval (Kevin Durand) is trying to protect Eric (Robert Pattinson) or maybe he just wants his workday to end a little earlier. After failing to coax Eric into using a more conveniently located barber, he warns Eric with unrestrained sarcasm that “the ride across town does not happen unless we make a day of it with cookies and milk.” Eric is portrayed as a spoiled child that is on a journey that will necessitate the dismantling of his controlled environment.

The densest philosophizing happens during Eric’s meeting with his “Chief of Theory” (Samantha Morton), during which anti-capitalist demonstrators try to overturn the lumbering vehicle as it crawls through midtown traffic. No matter the effort, the demonstrators can only superficially damage the armored and soundproof vehicle, which by now has clearly become a symbol of uncaring, unresponsive capitalism. The attempt to overturn the vehicle is experienced as an impudent and impotent rocking of the boat in which the occupants never feel threatened and are able to drink their Sobieski vodka without spilling a drop. During a lull in the philosophizing, the Chief of Theory turns to look out the window as if watching a TV screen and sees that one of the protestors is in flames. As if disappointed at having to watch a rerun, she complains that self-immolation is “not original,” that it’s an “appropriation” taken from Vietnamese monks. Looking beyond his advisor’s views on social theory to the actual practice of martyrdom he’s just witnessed, Eric, forty minutes into the movie, shows his first hint of humanity by sympathizing with the protestor. “Imagine the pain,” says Eric. “To say something. To make people think.”

His astonishing wealth has afforded him the safe haven of his limo, a cocoon that has enabled Eric to physically and emotionally disconnect from ordinary human society. His reaction to the immolation, the threat on his life, and his impending financial ruin ignites an identity crisis fueled by a self-destructive exploration of pain. Pain becomes a pathway that will allow him to reconnect with the world that exists outside the vehicle. After having sex in a hotel with Kendra (Patricia McKenzie), one of the security agents assigned to him, Eric commands her to shoot him with her stun gun.

The agony and the ecstasy: Taking advantage of some downtime, Kendra (Patricia McKenzie) and Eric explore their sadomasochistic instincts in a hotel en route to the west side barbershop. Neither Torval nor Kendra, with their more working class responsibilities, ever enter the limousine’s passenger section.

Near the end of the movie, desperate to feel something, even if it’s his own pain, he enigmatically announces to his assassin or perhaps himself, “Violence needs a burden, it needs a purpose.” Then Eric shoots himself through the hand. The further away from the financial district the vehicle gets, the more contact Eric has with people outside of his elite circle of contacts, the more he loses his sense of self, the more emotional he becomes, and the more he puts himself in danger.

Hand job: The parallels between Eric and Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) in The Pawnbroker (Lumet, 1964) extend far beyond the self-inflicted hand wound. Eric shoots himself in the hand with the gun he receives from the family barber. Sol, a holocaust survivor who has witnessed the death of his family, impales his hand on a letter spike, ... ... bleeding on the spent pawn tickets of the indigent people that frequent his shop and with whom he’s been unsympathetic towards. For vastly different reasons, both characters are emotionally numb and socially isolated. They use the promise of pain as punishment or as a way to awaken themselves from their spiritual death.

DeLillo in his book and Cronenberg in his movie have taken the famous opening sentence of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and turned it on its head. Through the limousine window, during the height of the demonstration, where there should be an ad or stock market ticker, the electronic billboard announces instead: A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM. Furthermore, Cosmopolis turns the Marxist notion of workers’ alienation on its head by ruminating about the alienating effects of capitalism on capitalists with Eric Packer as its avatar. Eric’s hyper veneer of self-control masks the out-of-control spoiled boy who gets what he wants because he can afford it, no matter how self-indulgent or absurd. He plans on putting a Heliport on the roof, and a shooting range in the building he owns. He has purchased and flown a 1980’s Soviet-made supersonic bomber that use to carry nukes and cruise missiles. He wants to buy Rothko’s Chapel and store it in his apartment where he has two elevators to choose from depending on his mood: one elevator plays the music of Satie; the other, the music of a Sufi rapper named Brutha Fez (K’ Naan). As the façade of self-control slowly deteriorates, Eric is humanized by his representation as a young person whose privileged life has perverted his social/emotional development, and inhibited his transition to adulthood.

After the immolation incident, Brutha Fez’s record producer, Kosmo (Grouchy Boy), makes his way to the limo where he informs Eric that his rap star hero is dead. Buying into a media-created persona of the rap star, Eric assumes Fez was shot—a target of gang violence. Kosmo, sarcastically hoping that Eric isn’t “disappointed,” tells him that Brutha Fez died of natural causes after a lifetime of heart problems. Displaying the youthful exuberance of a fan of an iconoclastic musician, Eric has his second emotional response. Looking very much like a little boy in need of comfort, Eric tears up and falling on his knees, embraces the older man.

Eric’s lack of maturity makes him incapable of having a meaningful intimate relationship with women. In addition to the hotel tryst with Kendra, Eric has some form of fleeting, impersonal sexual experience with two of the three women who enter the limo. In a marriage of convenience, Eric was recently wedded to the equally privileged Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), a poet. Her status as a poet, made possible in part by her financial independence (old money), puts her in opposition to Eric. Eric’s domain as an asset manager (new money) is material, practical and valued; Elise’s status as a poet is ethereal and valueless in that it is utterly divorced from any meaningful economy. During the first five minutes of the movie Eric is wearing sunglasses. He takes them off upon meeting with Elise, who notices the color of her husband’s eyes for the first time. She doesn’t really know him yet she is the only character, with the possible exception of his assassin, that sees Eric for who he is. He pursues her for sex. She declines and will not enter his limo. She meets with Eric outside his sphere of influence: in a taxi, eateries, a bookstore, and out on the street in the theater district.

Saying she can’t be “indifferent,” Elise calls him on his obvious sexual escapades. He denies everything and responds to her observations with weak alternate explanations and sexual vulgarities designed to crack her cool exterior or deflect attention away from his indiscretions, neither of which happens. Failing that, as if to excuse the behavior, Eric confesses that he is facing financial ruin and a credible death threat, telling Elise “it makes me feel free in a way I’ve never known.” Through his reckless behavior, Eric is freeing himself of his wealth, his sham marriage, and the security of the limousine and all that it represents. If Eric is the avatar of capitalism, his self-destructive behavior is analogous to the self-destructive nature of capitalism. While the story does not dismiss the role the demonstrators play in challenging the system, it strongly suggests that the system is collapsing under its own weight.

It’s nighttime when Eric arrives at his destination in a deserted, undetermined (Hell’s Kitchen in the novel), questionable neighborhood that has not yet been gentrified. Upon emerging from his motorized cocoon he is immediately assaulted by a pie assassin who is accompanied by an entourage of photographers and a videographer there to record the event, presumably for purposes of propaganda. Once again underscoring the attacks on capitalism by protestors as feeble, Torval quickly subdues the “pastry assassin,” dismissively calling the attack a “petty incursion” that’s “technically irrelevant.” He’s more concerned about the armed assassin that lies in wait.

Petty incursion à la mode: His stated mission is to “sabotage power and wealth,” but the master pastry assassin’s (Mathieu Amalric) politics are fuzzy and he seems more skilled at creating a media event to promote his own antics. ... ... He brags that his previous victims have included the Sultan of Brunei, Michael Jordan and Fidel Castro, and while he selected Eric as a target over the President of the U.S. who is also in town, his big complaint against Eric is that he has a “lack of humor.”

Continuing on his path of self-destruction, Eric tricks Torval into handing over his high tech weapon and then uses it to kill him. Eric has murdered the man he hired to protect him and then walks into the neighborhood where both Anthony the barber (George Touliatos) and Benno Levin the assassin (Paul Giamatti) await. Once at the barbershop, Anthony and Eric reminisce. In the novel, Anthony recounts the overcrowded, humble living conditions experienced by Eric’s father, underscoring the family’s upwardly mobile trajectory. Eric’s mission for a haircut may start off symbolically representing the traditional financial meaning of haircut—to take a loss—but it also represents a return to a nostalgic idea of family that has disappeared from his life because of his wealth.

At their meeting in the cab, Elise explains that she learns about the world by “asking the drivers where they come from.” Knowledgeable and dispassionate, Eric replies, “They come from horror and despair.” After killing Torval, Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola), Eric’s previously invisible chauffer becomes part of the story. Anthony and Ibrahim are both former cab drivers and share war stories. During the course of their conversation we learn that the African born Ibrahim, who is badly scarred around one eye, was the “Acting Secretary of External Affairs” in his “previous life.” There is a cut to a shot of Eric in the barber’s chair, eyes rapidly shifting as if he is trying to process what he’s just heard. Global capitalism has, in essence, taken Ibrahim from an important position in the government of his home country and placed him first in a New York City cab, and then in the stretched limo, chauffeuring a master of capitalism accomplished in investing in foreign currency. The primary grievance made by anti-globalization activists about the end results of economic neoliberalism becomes manifest in the drama that is unfolding in the decaying family barbershop: increased inequity leading to families being uprooted by poverty and violence.

War stories: Two former NYC cab drivers, Anthony the barber (George Touliatos) and Ibrahim the chauffer (Abdul Ayoola), advise the asset-manager on how to protect himself. When Anthony asks Ibrahim how he got the scar, Eric answers for him as if repeating a well-worn narrative: .... ... “You were beaten and tortured. An army coup. By the secret police. Or they thought they executed you. Fired a shot into your face. Left you for dead.” The chickens may come home to roost, but first they’ll drive our cabs.

In Game 6 (Hoffman, 2005), written by DeLillo in 1991, the Michael Keaton character, a former cab driver, also shares war stories with another displaced cab driver. This time the driver in the film, which is supposed to take place in 1986, was the head of Neurosurgery before emigrating from USSR. The film shares other plot characteristics with Cosmopolis as well as well as DeLillo’s 1985 book White Noise.

Eric’s journey begins with the film’s opening shot of a row of identical white stretched limos and stone columns, an image that suggests wealth, power, uniformity and stability; it closes with imagery that suggests the opposite: poverty, powerlessness and chaos. An assassin, head covered in a stained, threadbare towel, interacts with his financially ruined target in a dilapidated and cluttered squatters’ tenement. When the limo pulls away from the curb in the financial district it is in pristine condition. By the end of the movie the vehicle is dented and filthy with anarchist graffiti. Like the limo that’s taken him to this final destination, Eric’s appearance has also degenerated. In a series of succeeding scenes, he loses first his sunglasses, then his tie, and then his jacket. By the end of the movie he’s an un-tucked shirt with remnants of pie matted to a half-finished haircut that’s as asymmetrical as his prostate that he frets about during the entire movie.

Before and after: As Eric Packer gets closer to his destination, his appearance, his environment and his situation becomes more chaotic and degenerates.
The same can be said for his white stretched limousine that pulls away from the curb at the beginning of the movie as a fetishized object. It disappears into the garage at the end of the movie as a battered allegory.
The choice of background images for the opening and closing credits are ripe for multiple interpretations. The Pollock-esque opening credits suggest chaos while the closing Rothko-esque images suggests a meditative calm, putting into question, or reversing, the meaning of the opening and closing representations of Eric and his limo (from order to disorder). Or perhaps the viewer may be left thinking about the violent deaths the artists (and Eric) came to in spite of their vastly different aesthetic approaches to their work; or maybe we are left to ponder the absurd market value of art work that has become more a commodity to be owned by the wealthy, than a cultural artifact that is shared with the public.
Cosmic Bookends: As in Cosmopolis, the opening and closing credits in Map to the Stars are also used for commentary. The map to the stars in the opening credits (left) refers to a street map of the homes of Hollywood movie stars. In the closing credits of Map to the Stars, after the unfolding tragic events, the map of stars we are shown refers to the constellation (right).

Before his encounter with Benno the assassin, a former employee, the expatriate chauffer and the global capitalist embrace. Ibrahim drives the limo into a garage in an industrial section of the city where it disappears, damaged but not destroyed.

Solidarity: Eric and Ibrahim share the cab of the limo while Eric wonders where all the limos go when they are not in use. The question is given a fanciful answer in Leos Carax’ Holy Motors. Released the same year as Cosmopolis, the Franco-German production also prominently features a white stretched limo and all the wonderful and horrible things that enter and exit the vehicle. In the last scene of the movie, the limousines complain about being exploited, overworked, underappreciated and fret about their inevitable obsolescence. A global chorus of languages and accents are heard while taillights flicker as they ‘speak.’

In the long last sequence that takes place between Eric and Benno, we learn what unites them—they both have asymmetrical prostates and an almost erotic fondness for and understanding of foreign currency—and what divides them—Benno embraces asymmetry and claims Eric’s failure to do so led to his misunderstanding of the yuan and thus his downfall. The film ends with Benno pointing his weapon at the back of the head of the compliant Eric, tear streaming from his eye, then a cut to black. As in the scene with Kendra, we never find out if the trigger is pulled.

In DeLillo’s book, Kendra does in fact shoot Eric with the stun gun at full voltage and while we do not witness Benno pulling the trigger, in the last paragraph Benno is referred to as “his murderer” and Eric is left “waiting for the shot to sound.” And so the story, Eric’s life, and the fate capitalism, ends with an uncertain whimper and not with a definitive bang.

Capitalism does not like you: This is the last image we see in the movie. Richard Sheets, who prefers the nom de guerre Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), is a disgruntled employee who was really hoping the system would work out for him. He delivers the last lines of the movie before the cut to black: “I wanted you to heal me. Save me. I wanted you to save me.”