Brow Beat

Is Killing Them Softly About “Responsible Capitalism”?

Brad Pitt in the American trailer for Killing Them Softly

If you had only previously seen the domestic trailer for Andrew Dominik’s new film Killing Them Softly, you might have assumed the film’s focal points are mob killings, dark humor, and how cool Brad Pitt looks when he takes out his gun. However, the film’s international trailer, subtitled in French, highlights a different aspect of the highly-anticipated film: its allegorical treatment of America’s response to the financial crisis. Setting a grim gangster conflict amidst the presidential election of 2008, Dominik seems to be drawing a parallel between America and the mob.

The trailer opens with the robbery of a poker game, but its depiction of the mob’s revenge focuses less on wounded pride than on the loss of business revenue. “The games are shut down, they’re hurting for money,” Richard Jenkins says in a voiceover. The underworld response is extreme— “We need to proceed directly to murder,” Pitt says. And when he tells Jenkins the murder will cost more than he’s offering, Jenkins says, “You get ten. Recession prices.”

Relatable to the average viewer? Maybe not. But a comment, perhaps, or an attempted one, on how American business actually operates. In the world of this movie, hitmen, too, speak in terms of customer service: “We aim to please,” Pitt says, at one point. And the way he describes his methods—“I like to kill ’em softly, from a distance”—might be read as a critique of corporate malfeasance. “Quelqu’un doit payer” (someone has to pay), an unembellished title card tellingly notes.

All of which is entirely deliberate. “In a way, it’s a call for responsible capitalism,” Brad Pitt says in the October issue of Interview. “But Andrew [Dominik, the director] wanted to juxtapose that idea with the financial crisis and effects of that because there’s an interesting psychology at play in terms of who we are and what we do when given too much room.” Pitt sees the allegory in quite specific terms:

It started out in the ‘90s, under Clinton, with the good intentions of ‘Everyone should own a house and have a shot at the American dream.’ So you open up doors to make that possible by giving people these loans. Then, Bush comes in and deregulates everything, so there’s no one at the helm, and it becomes easier to take advantage of it because there’s no accountability. And then you know what happened from there—a lot of people got hurt. But it also says something about the nature of greed and what can happen when we don’t look beyond that. At the end of the day, what it says is that we can’t trust ourselves, that we need some governing body. I mean, people knew where things were heading–clearly, we got to the point where banks were actually betting against the very people they were giving these loans to.

Dominik wanted to talk about America,” Pitt adds, “and America as a business—but he wanted to hide it within this low-end crime drama.”

So why does the international trailer for Killing Them Softly pick up on these themes while the American trailer does not? Perhaps the movie’s marketing team thinks that the film’s politics are a better sell overseas. I’m not so sure, though: during the Cannes Film Festival, some French critics found the movie’s political message too obvious. One critic from L’Express, for instance, felt that the parallel between the mob and American bankers was clear 10 minutes in. And then, “So what? Pas grande chose.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Paris Match also complained about the film’s obvious themes, disparaging the fact that when the viewer wasn’t hearing gunshots, he or she was listening to speeches from Obama or George W. Bush. For the French, Tarantino-like violence took precedence over delicate character development in portraying the allegory, and the result was a grim and hackneyed message.

While the film may not be subtle enough for the French, Pitt thinks Americans will love the movie’s way of examining these days. “We, in America, love a story—we need a story to get involved in.”