‘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.