“…It’s Just A Business” – Anatomy of A Scene

“As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.”

“America is not a country, it’s just a business.”

‘Killing Them Softly’ is a 2012 movie that flew under the radar at the time of its release. It may seem on the surface as a movie about the mob regarding unpaid debts, illegal gambling rings, and retribution for those caught in the crossfire, but what makes this movie different is its allegory laid out in the film regarding its relation to the financial system. As the mafia tries to prop up its system of illegal gambling rings and extortion rackets by using different hired hitmen, there are radio and TV clips highlighting the role of different politicians trying to prop up the financial system in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To keep the system functioning, drastic measures are taken.

As the U.S. economy suffers, illegal activities flourish and there are those people who get caught up in resorting to crime to keep their head above water. When the illegal system malfunctions such as a Mafia protected card game gets robbed by criminals outside the system, Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt) is called upon as an enforcer hired to restore order to prevent the local criminal economy to collapse.

When any economy, illicit or legal, are ripped from its foundations, there will be enforcers or politicians who will need to clean up the mess left behind. While the allegory is not spelled out in the film, As Jackie is left to clean up the mess of the robbed card game by getting revenge on the small-time criminals who wanted to disrupt the system, many scenes highlight how the U.S. economy needs to be bailed out due to the irresponsible actions of the bankers and financial traders who got the country into this mess. While it may not be the most pertinent allegory, Jackie Cogan, is there to maintain order in their own local illegal gambling racket, similar to how leading politicians in government are called upon to maintain order when the national financial system is ready to crash.

Jackie Cogan is on his own throughout the movie and must rely upon himself to fix the mess left behind from the mob-protected robbed card game’s aftermath. He knows other mob enforcers who could help but they’re jaded, bitter, or too worse for wear having done Jackie’s job multiple times before to keep the mafia afloat. Above all else, Jackie is in it for himself to get paid and survive in an economic situation that is affecting everyone, criminal or civilian.

U.S. political leaders, similarly, were asked to intervene on behalf of the government, to step in to save a system that was being abused by financial firms, but also individuals, who made irresponsible decisions, and even illegal ones, which caused the national economy to crash. To prevent the system from collapsing, former Presidents, George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama had to step in to save the economy even though the system itself was at fault.

In the wake of the financial crisis that still resulted from the bad decisions and greedy actions of its players, when there’s a resulting increase in unemployment and poverty as the film depicts along with the collapse of some communities, some people will inevitably turn to criminal and illegal activities including gambling, extortion, and drug dealing. As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.

Without spoiling too much of the film, the ending scene takes place with Jackie and the mafia’s head accountant meeting at a bar to discuss his payment rendered for being an enforcer to keep the Mob card game running afloat after the perpetrators were punished for robbing it. Jackie, like the head Mafia accountant, are using each other for the money and stability of their own enterprises. Jackie Cogan is in it for himself as other enforcers were not able to do what he does, and he wants to be rewarded for it.

The Mob accountant is looking to make sure his illegal enterprise stays afloat without paying more than he needs to. In this scene, Jackie raises the rate of how much he charges for committing the hits on the people who robbed the card game due to the ‘recession.’ The mob accountant counters by saying that what they would him are the ‘recession’ prices and that he’s getting what another enforcer who couldn’t do the job would normally get.

“You know this business is a business of relationships.” The accountant tells Jackie that they want to keep the relationship with him going since every other enforcer is unavailable so he should not ask for more money given he might need to help them again. Jackie isn’t fooled by this plea to continue their ‘working’ relationship because at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid by them and they could not care less what happens to the enforcers who clean up the mob’s mess.

The accountant is listening to the 2008 election night acceptance speech by then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama imploring Americans to see each other as ‘one people’ and ‘out of many, we are one.’ Jackie doesn’t buy it given the circumstances for which he lives out his life in America. The accountant labels him as a ‘cynical’ person but he has reason to be as ends up cleaning up messes violently and criminally to keep the gravy train for others rolling.

Jackie sees even one of the founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson’ as a hypocrite because while he wanted freedom and liberty for all, he still owned slaves and wasn’t actually fighting for the ideals he espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Despite being known as an ‘American Saint’, Jackie believes Jefferson was out for himself and his own interests and that there are no unifying ideals that bind the country together besides the need for ‘money.’

“Don’t make me laugh…I’m living in America…and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business.” Jackie Cogan, after what he goes through in the film, is looking to get paid and survive at the end of the day. He is corrupted and evil but justifies his actions by telling himself and the audience that he’s on his own like many other people were in the financial crisis and must take this blood money from the mafia to make it in America.

When Jackie Cogan hears American politicians say that “we’re all in this together”, “we are one community, one nation”, he believes that no one is looking out for him, not even his mafia employers, and must fight for every dollar he can have because he would not survive otherwise. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is not just about a low-level mafia enforcer keeping a mob-run gambling ring going after doing contract kills on three people who robbed one of the games.

Throughout the film, whether its news clips, radio segments, or the desperate actions of its characters, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is primarily about the larger and looming allegory for the larger failures of the economic system who could not protect many of its citizens from financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The effects of this past crisis reverberates even to this day, whose mess created such dire circumstances for people across the country to fend for themselves. While the small-town mafia and Wall Street can get propped up by those who intervene to save it, the film makes it a key point in this ending scene that for too many Americans, they believe they have been left behind by a financial system that does not work for them and for a culture where it’s “winner take all” and if you get left behind, nobody is going to be there to bail you out.

Anatomy of a Scene – The Climb

My love for The Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan is based on how realism blends with the superhero themes that make it a compelling series of movie. Not only is the acting, cinematography, and directions of these films brilliant but you enjoy the deeper themes and meaning behind the storylines. Some of these scenes including the one I am highlighting from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ have not only great symbolism but larger lessons for our own lives on how we react to adversity and the challenges that life throws at us. Even when you are not Batman, a superhero with genius level intellect and almost superhuman physical strength, we can relate to Batman because he is fallible, and he has his weaknesses like we all do.

The brilliance of this particular scene from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is it shows Batman or Bruce Wayne at one of his lowest lows. He is an older man, not as physically imposing or as intimidating as he used to be, and he has lost almost everyone who meant to something to him. This scene comes in the 2nd half of the film and is located in a pit which has a double meaning to it. From the depths of this pit, we wonder if Batman will be able to rise and become who he is meant to be in order to face his adversaries head on.

‘The Climb’ scene from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is the best scene in the The Dark Knight trilogy in my opinion. Between Hans Zimmer’s music to the dialogue to the feeling of suspense to the ultimate payoff, it is an incredibly powerful scene that will stick with you even years later when you have forgotten other parts of the movie. I would like to breakdown the scene’s setting and what is happening along with giving some background as to what is significant about the events of the scene.

The beginning of the scene begins with the Bruce training physically in order to be strong enough to leave the pit where he is a prisoner like other similarly forsaken men. He is confident in his abilities even after having fractured a few of his back vertebrae after getting ‘broken’ by Bane, a masked villain who seems to be immune from Batman’s stealth and fighting tactics. After being sent to ‘the worst hell on Earth’ according to Bane, Batman slowly recovers from his injuries with help from the prison doctor and the blind seer who give him the history of the prison. It is Bane’s prison and he has sent many men there to die as no one has ever escaped except for Bane, which is only a rumor at this point. Bruce tells the prison doctor that he is not ‘meant to die in here’ even though to the doctor, it makes little difference where Bruce dies since no one has ever made the leap to freedom to survive and leave.

Even with Bruce’s back healing and seeing the urgency of Gotham City being under lockdown by being threatened with a nuclear weapon and his armed henchmen, Bruce has to spend a few months doing pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and any other activity in order to physically be ready to escape. “Survival is the spirit” says the blind seer who used to care for Bane when he was in the prison. Bruce is ready physically according to him and he says his soul is ready, but he fails a few different times and re-injures himself while trying to make this leap to freedom.

It is more than just your body being ready to jump but it is also about the spirit, which revolves around mental toughness. The blind seer reminds Bruce that he cannot make the leap if he does not fear death. Bruce is not afraid of death in general but is afraid of dying in a pit prison for which there is no escape while his home city burns and suffers. Bruce is angry at Bane and wants vengeance but before he is able to leave, he must conquer the ultimate fear of death by facing it head on.

The blind seer tells him again that he has to “Make the climb…” Bruce asks incredulously, “How?” having tried multiple times with a rope attached to him to prevent him from falling to death from the top area of the pit. The blind seer reminds him that he must jump “without the rope” which acts as a safety harness, “Then fear will find you again…” In order to conquer the fear of death and dying in the pit, Bruce must leap to freedom with nothing holding him back, not a rope nor his fears such as of bats.

Bruce only brings with him ‘supplies’ for his journey back to Gotham remaining ever hopeful he will survive this leap to freedom with no rope to hold him back or keep him from suffering the deadly consequences. Bane’s prisoners start chanting from their cells ‘Deshi Bashara’ over and over again and louder as Bruce gets ready to climb out of the pit. Bruce asks the Doctor, “what does it mean?” and the Doctor replies, “Rise.” Bruce’s father, before his death, asked his son, “Why do we fall?” and after all this time as Batman and the trials and tribulations he has experienced as a caped crusader, he finally knows the only answer in his life is to “Rise.”

Looking on and as the blind seer hears the ‘Deshi Bashara’ chants get louder and louder, Bruce begins his climb out of the pit without the rope. As Bruce gets towards the final jump out from the top ledge of the pit to climb out, the music starts to crescendo and the bats that he has feared all of his life since his parents’ death fly out of the top edge of the pit and surround him as he gets ready to jump.

Realizing he no longer has the constant fear of them, he realizes he is Batman risen again and can make the full jump with confidence that he will make it. Seeing daylight above him and having faith in his ability to rise up to save his city, Bruce holds on to the other ledge successfully making about a 3-meter jump to avoid death and live to fight another day. Having seen daylight and the sun fully for the first time in months, Bruce is aghast that he made it but his determination to save Gotham steadies himself for the long journey ahead.

Because Bruce Wayne is Batman, he remembers to save Bane’s prisoners, most likely innocent men captured in the fight asked the supervillain and throws them down the long ropes so that they too can climb out to freedom with his help. It’s the small details like that which make Nolan’s Batman trilogy the best of all Batman films. Bruce’s Batman persona does not forget the men who helped him heal his back, train himself physically, and offer the wisdom to face death head on in order to face Bane again and save the city. This very pit that Bruce rises from is directly inspired by the comic books themselves as it is similar to the ‘Lazarus Pit’ where men can be regenerated and made immortal again by the pit’s healing powers.

There is also references made to Ra’s Al-Ghul who appears to Bruce in a vision speaking about the ‘many forms of immortality’ that exist and how he may still be around through Bane’s control of the League of Shadows or otherwise. “There is a prison in a more ancient part of the world, a pit where men are thrown to suffer and die, but sometimes a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes, the pit sends something back.”

Bruce was able to get back because he rose from the darkness of his own despair from being broken in terms of mind and body but was able to risk it all in order to save his city. He faced his fears head on and was able to have enough confidence in his abilities to leap to freedom and be ‘sent back’ to Gotham to avenge those suffered under Bane’s tyranny. Bruce is a hero as well because he is selfless and thinks about others before himself such as those men in the pit he freed and giving them real hope rather than just a glimmer of sunlight by handing them down the rope so they could be free too from Bane’s cruelties.

This brilliant scene can have a deeper meaning for us all because during our lives, we will all be down in the metaphorical pit being unable to escape our own fears, doubts, and phobias. However, we must always face our fears and rise out of the pit of despair to give ourselves the best chance to succeed. Whether its feeding your family, learning a new skill to be employed, or winning a championship in an intensive physically or mentally challenging activity, we must face our fear head on and realize it is better to have thrust ourselves into these challenges head on than staying down in the pit of our own worries.

During our lives, we must cut the proverbial rope of convenience, comfort, and easy living to truly develop ourselves and our abilities. Life is not without risk including sickness and death, but we must continue to fight on and continue to escape the self-made pits that lie within each and every one of us. Motivating yourself to fight against these problems and letting go of your fears will make you a stronger person. Whenever life gets you down, remember to fight on and use this movie scene as a motivation for you to continue on. You will be down in the pit as Bruce was during this film, but it does not mean that you are doomed to stay there. With taking on your fears, living life how you want it to be lived, and overcoming challenges and obstacles, you too will make the leap to freedom in mind, body, and soul.

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