(Thomas) Jefferson‘s an American saint because he wrote the words, “All men are created equal.” Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business…”Jackie Cogan, Killing Them Softly

They could be the bleak, empty streets of any town or city; littered with the grey remnants of a decaying, post-industrial landscape. The background audio filled with the echoes of President Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination; “America…I say to the people of America…this moment…is our chance to…make of our own lives what we will…that pushes us forward…the American promise is alive…it’s that promise that has always set this country apart…a promise that says each of us…the freedom to make of our own lives what we will…“. Entitled “The American Promise“, Obama‘s words were delivered at a pivotal moment in American history. A moment far more defining then most people realized.

By the beginning of 2008, the U.S.home-mortgage debt relative to the Gross Domestic Product (GNP) went from about 46% in the 1990s to an unsettling 73%. That is an $11 trillion increase in refinancing while home values rocketed upward. And there seemed to be no end in sight. Everyone inside the bubble was taking full advantage of an overheated market that was certain not to last. Hoping against hope that the mortgage bubble wouldn’t burst until after the Wall-street coffers were full. With home values on the rise, consumer markets were ripe with over-consumption. That is, until the bottom finally did drop-out. The result was that every sector of the U.S. economy crashed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the banking institutions had financed those ridiculous increases with overvalued-mortgages backed with government securities. Which is another way of saying, however irresponsible, the banks simply couldn’t lose. The money had been guaranteed by their friends in Congress. Inevitably those securities took an unprecedented decline. Those “guaranteed securities” had now become more commonly known as toxicassets. Why? Because they were virtually worthless. The market crash of 2008/2009 plunged the U.S. economy into a far darker place then the Great Depression of the 1930s. And that understates the point. Unlike the regulations and reforms that took place after the Great Crash of 1929, the political institutions in 2008 were unresponsive to the need for market reform. Neither the Bush or Obama administrations had the courage to reform the laissez-faire impulses of the marketplace. Reforms that could have saved millions of homeowners from bankruptcy and restored some level of integrity to the U.S financial institutions. That purposeful inaction on the part of Congress and the White House was a transformative lesson for the country; revealing that is was actually Wall-street in control of the entire process.

Based on George Higgins‘ 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade, the film Killing Them Softly provides director Andrew Dominik with a unique opportunity to showcase a simple premise made clear from the crisis; at the most fundamental level, the USA has stopped functioning as a successful nation-state. That indictment will be a bitter pill for many. But the central organizing principle of this land-of-the-free is profit. Above every law of Allah and Man, is the tireless pursuit of money on every level of business and government. Whatever fairytales American politicians try to spins about freedom and constitution profit is the virus that infects every level of decision-making in Washington, D.C.

Killing Them Softly takes the macro-corruption of Wall-street to the micro-level with the story of three small-time gangsters looking for a big score. Frankie (Scoot McNairy), Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) are just local hoods with a big idea. Frankie and Russell will hold-up a mob-sponsored card game. A risky proposition but Squirrel has supplied the crew with an important piece of information; blame for the robbery will be place directly onto the game operator, Markie Trappman (Ray Liotta). Squirrel explaining that Markie had previously staged a similar robbery of his own game. And was then forgiven for the transgression by the mob. However, Squirrel figures two robberies would be more then the mob would tolerate; resulting in an immediate “hit” on Markie. Leaving Frankie and Russel (and Squirrel) to profit from Markie’s misfortune.

Unfortunately for our trio of thieves, the robbery has ramification much larger then expected; leaving the entire underground gambling operation shut-down because “the street” perceive the situation as not safe for business. With no revenue being generated, the mob leadership brings in their own agent-for-change, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)—a professional hitman and stabilizing force who understands the internal operation of the criminal underworld. The astute (psuedo-nietzschean) Jackie immediately grasps what must to be done; although it was Frankie, Russell and Squirrel who pulled the robbery job, Markie needs to die first. Jackie knows that the first priority of his employer is to restore profitability. Everyone needs to get back to doing “what they are supposed to do“. More important then punishing the guilty, Jackie needs to repair the perception that the environment is not safe so that the card-games can resume.

The newly elected President Obama took a similar view of the mortgage-crisis he inherited from the Bush Administration. We must understand that the real purpose of the 2008 election was to provide a thin veil of hope to the public, while moving swiftly towards a generous policy of inverted-socialism for the banking industry. Ultimately, it is the President’s job to get everyone back to doing “what they are supposed to do“. Obama’s “American Promise” turned out to be a massive package of bank bailouts and promises of future reforms (that never happened). In the end, trillions of dollars in corporate loans, asset purchases, guarantees, and other public spending went directly to those banks that created the problem. And where did the money come from? Well, that’s the role of the U.S. Federal Reserve System; printed more dollars. It’s just that simple. So lucrative were these public bailouts that instead of financing more domestic loans to small business and consumers, the banks chose to invest their “public-dollars” in more profitable areas; purchasing foreign currency assets and giving corporate bonuses to the top executives. Wall-street, now flush with taxpayer cash, had only one further need; someone had to take the fall. Can you guess who? In 2008, more then 3 million American homes were put into foreclosure by the same banks that received bailout cash. That’s one in every 54 homes according to CNN Money.

In Killing Them Softly, Jackie summarizes his thinking about who should take the fall; the street had spoken and given the verdict that Markie must be punished for the perception that he was guilty. And that perception was far more important to the mob’s future profits then any need for justice. The street demanded a fall guy. And Markie‘s death is the price for returning to stability and profitability. Precisely that same conclusion that the U.S. political establishment came too during the home-mortgage crisis. So while the bankers and policy-makers received unprecedented bailouts, homeowners would need to lose everything. Why? Because that’s the way monopolycapitalism works. Killing Them Softy captures the silent death at the heart of the American Promise. Echoing the conversation that Jackie Cogan had with the banker/agent of the mob;

  • Jackie Cogan:  You ever kill anyone?
  • Driver: No.
  • Jackie Cogan:It can get touchy-feely.
  • Driver:Touchy-feely?
  • Jackie Cogan: Emotional, not fun, a lot of fuss. They cry. They plead. They beg. They piss themselves. They call for their mothers. It gets embarrassing.
  • Jackie Cogan: I like to kill them softly, from a distance. Not close enough for feelings. Don’t like feelings. Don’t want to think about them.

A 2021 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis admited publicly for the first time that over half of the adult population of the U.S. cannot afford a $400 emergency. So Frankie, Russell, Squirrel and Markie are really not so different then many of us. Certainly not innocent of their misdemeanors. Just a group of men desperately trying to survive a day-by-day existence. These are the ugly contradictions of the American Promise. The streets of a corrupt environment are a brutal and difficult place to navigate. Even the ice-cold transgressions of Jackie Cogan seem easier to understand within this context. The American political system prefers to kill silently and from a distance. Carefully balancing the promise of reform with the silent murder of the most vulnerable and innocent segments of society. Killing Them Softly reveals the simmering defeat and unspoken rage that now permeates throughout a culture-of-profit; America is not a country. America is a business.

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back”