Here at Reel Spirituaity, our goal in everything we publish is something other than strict film criticism. We aim for what we call “theological film criticism,” meaning, we consider not just the formal elements of a film, but also the theological, sociological, and psychological aspects of any given movie. (Those of you paying close attention will note that Fuller also has three schools – a School of Theology, a School of Intercultural Studies, and a School of Psychology.)
We also encourage a very open posture toward the films we interact with, allowing them to set the agenda for discussion and believing they are, like us, more interested in asking questions about humanity, the world, and God than they are about making statements. Most films fit this mold, and we have lots of great virtual conversations with films on our website and other great real conversations with filmmakers in person at our many screenings (and over many cups of coffee).
As Editor for the Brehm Center and Co-Director for Reel Spirituality in particular, I maintain the tone of the discussion as it happens online. I have to decide quite often whether or not we are going to feature an article or film based on the type of discussion it encourages. Very occasionally, this means heavy edits and/or choosing to not feature an article altogether. Today, I chose against featuring one of my own reviews, the one you will find below for Killing Them Softly. Instead, I’m burying it within the site. Congratulations if you found it. Consider it an Easter egg.
The film is a political statement. It exists, very explicitly, to put forward the idea that, and I quote, “America isn’t a country. It’s a business,” and that’s why Americans are so cruel to others. Killing Them Softly doesn’t want to have a conversation. It only wants to convert its audience to its dogma. To review the film in the manner in which Reel Spirituality reviews films is simply to react to the film’s politics. The film’s posture is closed, so it invites only a closed response.
For your enjoyment, here’s my review:
Killing Them Softly
There is nothing soft about Killing Them Softly. Its metaphor – gangster violence as stand-in for American economic politics – is an age old one. It’s message – “America is not a country. It’s a business,” and this business mindset accounts for American cruelty – is also well-tread, but rarely has it been ground so relentlessly into an audience.
Killing Them Softly drives its message home through its myriad of conversations between its characters and by interspersing political speeches from Presidents Bush and Obama throughout its brief yet long-feeling, ninety-seven minute run time. There are moments of violence (as promised by the trailer), but they are few. When they do arrive, the film wallows in them like the world’s economy in its 5-year economic funk.
That Killing Them Softly is languidly paced and packed with more conversation than action should come as no surprise to fans of director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film focused on interpersonal relationships building to a single gun shot. Jesse James benefits immensely from Roger Deakins’ ethereal cinematography and a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ that is as open as the Kansas prairie. Jesse James is a film about legends built up and laid bare, and the tension between Deakins’ iconographic images and the Cave/Ellis harrowingly sparse score carry the film.
While there are some astounding images in Killing Them Softly – I’m thinking chiefly of the scene where two characters beat another nearly to death in a parking lot in the falling rain – the images are never beautiful when they need to be, like during the lengthy conversation scenes. Almost all of the stylistic elements of the film seem to be done for the sake of doing them. Furthermore, what score elements are included are as on-the-nose as Jesse James’ score is impressionistic, and the majority of the score is made up of the clips from aforementioned political speeches.
Killing Them Softly is too explicit to invite much reflection, not beautiful enough to invite much admiration, and is, in the end, a political statement without any argumentative support.
Now, let’s consider Killing Them Softly’s proposition that America operates primarily as a business, and people’s cruelty to one another can be attributed to this fact.
I think the film is half right. I agree that often, American society seems to operate as a business. We all buy and sell from one another and expect our government to facilitate these transactions. While we may not go as far as Killing Them Softly’s gangsters and, ahem, kill them softly, as we begin to treat others as products instead of people, we tend to treat them as disposable commodities. Society built on consumption leads us, many time, to consuming each other.
I differ from Killing Them Softly though on its basic premise – America is not, categorically, a business. “America” isn’t definitively anything other than a label we can apply to any number of things. If society was to adopt different values, its people choosing to treat one another as human beings instead of products, favoring love and grace over consumption, America would become something totally different. “America” is simply the name we give to this group of people claiming some sort of societal bond. “America” is whatever those people are and can become whatever they become.
Killing Them Softly roots its indictment of America in a retelling of America’s founding myth, claiming that Jefferson’s famed words were only his and his contemporaries’ attempt to guarantee their own economic authority. However, Killing Them Softly’s myth is, in essence, no different than the myth it eschews, a story created to bolster certain contemporary values. America’s founding myth has been retold since the country was founded, and it will continue to be retold until the country’s existence dissipates from all memory, meaning different things for different people at different times.
Myths don’t reveal truths about origins and identities. They reveal truths about the aspirations of the myth-tellers. We need to pay attention to our myths not because they reveal who we are but because they reveal what we fear, what we love, and who we want to become. Stories, even stories about the past, are futures. Myths are what we are living into.
In the end, I suppose I agree with Killing Them Softly’s assumption that stories are important, but I disagree with the story the movie tells. Killing Them Softly’s story is not a story I want to live into. The world I see coming is much more beautiful and good.