The opening credits of the Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly are set to snatches of Barack Obama's 2008 Democratic Convention speech, focused on the notion of “the American promise,” jarringly jump-intercut with scenes of Frank (Scoot McNairy) making his way through a tunnel onto a dismal American city street, windblown trash swirling all around, to emerge under side-by-side campaign billboards for Obama and John McCain.
This opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about Killing's context — it's a period piece set in 2008, in a broken-down urban epicenter of post-economic crash, pre-election America — as well what writer-director Andrew Dominik is “doing” to his source, George Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade. He's using the structure of a self-policing underground economy of junkies, killers and administrators, greedy bastards all, to indict an above-ground system, the world into which the film is going to be released, and suggesting that the criminal satellite economy and the mainstream superstructure are functionally the same.
But Dominik — whose last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was a masterpiece of visual storytelling similarly about law and outlaws and the slipperiness of myth and reality as an almost geographically genetic American imperative — doesn't trust us to watch this beautifully self-evident opener and get what he's up to. So he keeps telling us.
At the directive of small-time boss Squirrel, Frank and his partner in bumbling crime, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), pull off the heist of a poker game managed by Markie (Ray Liotta). A mob executive assistant of sorts (Richard Jenkins) — who complains there's “no decision makers” among his bosses, just “total corporate mentality” — contracts Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to restore confidence in the underground poker game economy by teaching a lesson to Markie, Squirrel, Russell and Frank. Cogan, who is acquainted with one of the parties and refuses to kill anyone he knows personally, insists on subcontracting Mickey (James Gandolfini), a gluttonous associate from New York who lets his appetite for booze and whores get in the way of getting the job done.
Killing Them Softly is at its best when it's essentially veering off-track. One assassination, shot in extreme slow-motion/bullet-time, a show-offy but stunning CGI set-piece, works as a gory parody of the current American action movie auto-pilot. In just two scenes, the Gandolfini character gives the movie a black heart of toxic gender stuff, florid misogyny twinned with paranoia and self-pitying sentimentality. (“There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking,” he says dreamily.)
But it's not an exaggeration to say that Dominik hammers his political point to death. As these criminals move through days filled with backroom card games, bus depot drug dropoffs and clandestine rendezvous in town cars to discuss enforcement-through-whacking, everywhere they go a TV or a radio injects real, circa fall 2008 rhetoric from Obama, McCain and George W. Bush into the space (in one scene between Pitt and Jenkins, audio of Bush's justification of the bailout even seems to be higher in the sound mix than the dialogue of the characters). When Dominik uses music, it's usually American standards (“Paper Moon,” “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”) chosen for ironic effect — except when Frank and Russell shoot heroin to an excerpt from (yes, seriously) the Velvet Underground's “Heroin.”
Only in the final scene does anyone in the movie actually acknowledge the deluge of political propaganda in their lives. Cogan, meeting Jenkins' character in a bar to collect payment for services rendered, looks up at a TV broadcasting Obama's Election Night victory speech. Cogan may be painted as a killer too cowardly to shoot at close range, but he's also proven to be the only “smart guy” in the movie capable of analysis and introspection. As Obama closes his campaign with a blast of on-message utopian cheerleading, Cogan scoffs. “Oh yes, we're all the same. We're all equal. … I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own. America's not a country, it's a business. So fucking pay me.”
Is this the director speaking through the character? This film that seems to think it's blowing our minds by pointing out the essentially corporate nature of American life, made by a non-American (Dominik is from New Zealand) whose last film was all but dumped by its corporate-owned studio and thereby barely seen by Americans, is scheduled for release by the triumphant Harvey Weinstein, who is of course famous for forcing filmmakers' hands when it comes to commercialization. I don't know that Killing Me Softly's distributor is responsible for this movie's thudding didacticism any more than I can verify that TWC forced John Hillcoat to add unnecessary narration to Lawless, a just-fine Americana-infused crime flick turned mediocre by its assumption that its audience needs to be force-fed basic historical context. It's definitely possible that the directors made these terrible decisions on their own, and certainly, given Dominik's previous experience, maybe he's justified in underestimating his audience. But whoever's responsible, both films suffer from what Killing Them Softly so deftly sums up as “total corporate mentality.”
The disappointment of Killing Them Softly stands in contrast to the success of another film that appropriates real political media within its drama, the sleeper hit of Cannes 2012, Pablo Larrain's No. The capstone of Chilean filmmaker Larrain's trilogy of films about the Augusto Pinochet regime, No stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene Saavedra, a composite character based on two real-life advertising executives who were contracted by a coalition of anti-Pinochet activists to create TV commercials advocating a “no” vote in the 1988 referendum on Pinochet's dictatorial presidency.
Rather than focus solely on the legitimate reasons to oust Pinochet from power — the unlawful kidnappings, assassinations, torture and profiteering that marked his presidency, not to mention his total control of media that made the offer of equal television time to the opposition in the run-up to the vote historic in itself — Saavedra fought to appeal to the Chilean populace's latent optimism, employing the same tools used to sell soft drinks to instigate political change. “Let's list everything that's happy,” Saavedra coaches his crew. He commissions a catchy jingle — “No, me gusta No!” — and fills the ads with improbably simplistic catchprashes (“Without dictatorship, happiness will come!”) It's kitsch as resistance. The establishment isn't worried; it mocks NO's rainbow logo, writing the opposition off as “communist faggots.” But it's working, and as the campaign wears on, emboldened by evident public response, NO's propaganda gets looser and weirder, the cheesy songs and earnest faux-newscasts balanced out with Monty Python-esque gags.
Working with Pedro Peraino and Sergio Armstrong, the co-screenwriter and cinematographer of Sebastian Silva's Sundance winner The Maid, Larrain produces a kind of highly contrived naturalism. The film is shot on U-matic video cameras vintage to the period, so that actual excerpts from the real NO campaign can be woven into the fictionalization of its creation. The video image is fittingly unstable, its blurs and muddy washes of color mirroring NO's attempt to fight Pinochet's totally opaque regime with less-than-transparent euphemism — spectacle versus spectacle. The film is full of jokes for the eagle-eyed — a shot of a mime drinking a soda, which the soda company objected to when Saavedra tried to sneak it into that commercial, is reappropriated for the NO campaign — but just as the ad men counted on their audience to passively receive the campaign, Larrain has created a seamless spectacle that washes over the viewer, making it extremely difficult to separate the real from the staged, or to actively analyze, shot for shot, what we're seeing. And so No is both a crowd-pleasing, satisfying narrative entertainment and a highly sophisticated conceptual object — perhaps the ultimate Situationist movie.