Just about the time the United States was going to the polls in 2008 to vote for their next President, one small time crook has an idea. There are card games in the local New Orleans area which make enough money to prop up the criminal fraternity, but as you can imagine, not everyone involved is entirely scrupulous. What has given Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) his notion is that Markie (Ray Liotta), one minor overseer employed by the gangsters to keep the games running smoothly, once admitted that he arranged a robbery of one game in secret. Everyone laughed it off... then.
But there's precious little to laugh at now, in Australian director Andrew Dominik's rather oblique take on the financial scandals that saw out the George W. Bush adminsitration and saw in the supposedly much improved Barack Obama one, though if Killing Them Softly was anything to go by, Dominik was unconvinced that the much-promised change the Democrats proclaimed as their selling point was actually going to happen. The thing was, he didn't much go into his reasons other than a blanket statement put across by the plot, drawn from a George V. Higgins novel of decades past, that what we were dealing with were criminals in every strata of society.
These men, and the film makes the point that they are mostly men with only one female speaking role in the whole story (and she's a hooker), are so wrapped up in their greed that they have failed to address the wider implication of neglecting their community other than to make as much profit from it as possible, and as long as these mobsters are comfortable that's all that matters to them. Thus were the illegal activities of the hoodlums compared to the methods in which the bankers would exploit the people whose finances they were claiming to be looking after, in what could have been heavy handed message making but as it played was as much about crime as a whole as it was in particular.
Amato has organised these two lowlifes, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to do his dirty work for him, but the atmosphere of taking advantage of everyone you can to selfishly make your own gains has pervaded everything, and because of that everyone ends up the victim. Whether this means losing their livelihood or losing their lives, nobody is safe from the culture of rampant greed, which is the dilemma the hitman brought in to clear up the mess left in the wake of the robbery has to pick his way through, and Jackie Cogan (a commanding Brad Pitt) does so as gingerly as possible until he realises there's no way he cannot get his hands dirty too. Even the man his bosses bring in to assist, the supposed expert, is too wrapped up in his own troubles to be any help whatsoever.
He being Mickey, played by James Gandolfini, apparently acknowledging it was gangster soap The Sopranos which would define his career, so why not take another role in that vein? Mickey is more like the inevitable ending to a life steeped in crime, where the selfishness has been amplified to absurd levels, be it insulting the waiter who brings him his (many) drinks or bitching about that hooker who would only do so much for him. Only Jackie, with his acumen for business, seems capable, but he is dragged down into the mire with the rest of them when it becomes clear there's not enough money to pay him his fee, and what damage the job has done to his soul may be irrevocable. As if the whole movie was weighed down with this despair, even in the face of political hope which will inevitably lead to disappointment, Killing Them Softly wasn't exactly a fun ride, and it contained some jarringly blatant continuity errors suggesting the filmmakers were growing sick of everything too, but it was sobering should you care to contemplate it.