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The Economy of Crime: A Review of Killing Them Softly

by Dexter Babin


WARNING: SPOILERS!

If you haven’t seen Killing Them Softly, I suggest you avoid the following review.
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America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now fucking pay me.
– Jackie Cogan

Based off the novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a mob hitman who is tasked with tracking down the three men that conspired to rob a mob protected poker game. Directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)), Killing Them Softly takes place in the most dismal of locations in a post-recession city.

One issue I take, not with the film, but rather with several of its reviews that have come out saying that this story is set in New Orleans. Being filmed in New Orleans, of course, there are several locations that look very familiar to a current resident, like myself. But to somebody who has never visited New Orleans before, these locations could be the slums set in any city. While some locals and reviewers may fault Dominik for not capturing the particular essence that New Orleans has to offer, I argue that Dominik kept the locations as non specific as possible.

For example, Roger Ebert says:

“Killing Them Softly” begins with a George V. Higgins novel set in Boston in 1974 and moves its story to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2008…”

“Killing Them Softly” continues as a dismal, dreary series of cruel and painful murders, mostly by men who know one another, in a barren city where it’s usually night, often rainy and is never identifiable as New Orleans — not even by the restaurants.”

Ebert’s full review can be found here: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/killing-them-softly-2012

Unlike Ebert, not only do I not think that Killing Them Softly takes place in New Orleans, I don’t think it takes place in any specific city. The location remains undisclosed, so that the viewer could think that this story could possibly happen anywhere. But there is one factor that I don’t think Ebert took into consideration in assuming that the movie takes place in New Orleans: legalized gambling. Gambling is legal in New Orleans, making mob run poker games obsolete. Even if one would argue that underground poker games still existed in New Orleans, which there is no evidence of, why would anyone run the risk of going to an underground poker game, when they could just gamble at a legal establishment? Harrah’s casino in New Orleans is so large, it would take a legion of armed gunman to rob it.

Another point in the story that makes it impossible for it to take place in New Orleans, is that it seems that the entire underworld economy focuses on these card games. Even when underground gambling existed in New Orleans, under the reign of mob boss Carlos Marcello, and while illegal gambling played a very large part of his organization’s income, it wasn’t his organization’s only income. His entire organization wouldn’t collapse if one of his gambling houses was raided. Again, since gambling is legal in New Orleans, it would be impossible for a criminal organization to exists solely on the profits of underground card games.

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The movie starts with low level thieves Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Australian junkie Russell (the underrated Ben Mendelsohn) being hired by an equally low level underworld figure, Johnny Amato (Vince Curatola, who is a pleasure to be seen on screen again in a post-Sopranos gangster role), to rob an illegal poker game that is run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta). The only reason that Amato is attempting the robbery in the first place is because Trattman’s game has been robbed before. Trattman was in on the robbery, and drunkenly confessed it to his underworld colleagues one night. One offset of the card
game being robbed is the complete collapse of the underworld economy. Since one of them were robbed, all of the card games in the city were shut down and nobody was making any money. While one may think that Trattman would be killed because of this,
he is so liked by everyone, he gets a pass. Amato figures that if the card game is robbed
again, the underworld would immediately suspect Trattman and he would be disposed of,
ending the investigation there.

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