The Amorality of Business: Killing Them Softly and Inside Job

Can anything that does not have the pursuit of good at its root be truly ethical?

by Daniel Garrett Volume 18, Issue 10 / October 2014 13 minutes (3172 words)

Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik. Plan B/Annapurna Pictures/Weinstein, 2012

Inside Jobs, directed by Charles Ferguson. Representational Pictures/Screen Pass/Sony, 2011

Is there anything that is not touched by business, and the quest for money? There is much that we cannot do alone, much that we cannot acquire without others: thus we exchange our skills and goods for those of others, using money as a medium of exchange. There is the promise of community, but the circumstances of our work and reward are matters of place, power, and privilege. Human being is an ideal that we pretend is an accomplished fact. We assume that our own intelligence, independence, and integrity are proven, and that of others probable, dependable; and life shows us how wrong we can be. Killing Them Softly is a film about business and crime; and while it focuses on the desperate and the isolated, on men on the lower rungs of society, the film suggests something of the amorality of the larger world. This is not far from animal existence, the survival of the fittest, with the option of cannibalism. The social contract has been torn in half. Killing Them Softly presents a portrait in which money is the fundamental standard of value and violence is the price to be paid for transgression of corrupt rules. It is a sad, terrifying portrait, one with absurd elements; and it is hard to argue that it is not part of the world that we live in.

There is no greater freedom than the freedom to define oneself and one’s life and work. Yet, the structure of relationships of power in society, regarding ideas, values, and material resources, and the struggles to manage and change those relationships, affect us all; and though we may declare our allegiance to art, philosophy, and spirituality, we must bear some relationship to money and politics. In the beginning of the film Killing Them Softly, a man walks through a landscape of ruin and garbage, set to an interrupted Senator Barack Obama speech about American promise, during his campaign for the American presidency. Is that American promise a dream, or a lie? Two criminals, Frankie and Russell, one a mostly well-intentioned fool and the other a drug addict, have a meeting before a meeting; they are two men—referred to as kids, due less to genuine youth than to dress and immaturity—in a great ruined city. The original George Higgins story that inspired the film—the novel _Cogan’s Trade_—was set in Boston. Although there are mentions of northeastern (Somerville, Hoboken) and southern (Orlando) locations, I do not think that the city is named in Killing Them Softly, but the film was made in New Orleans, and those who recognize its streets and bridges and transit station will recognize it. (Thanks to Louisiana’s generous film tax credits, New Orleans is becoming, like New York, the city behind a city, an embodiment of the metropolis.) The ambiguity of locale and the spare scenery give the film an almost abstract quality, although there are moments—a drug high; a nighttime ambush—when the film explodes with expressionist detail. The two shambling men, Frankie and Russell, are called to a meeting by someone with a plan to rob a card game, Squirrel, also known as Johnny, the owner of a dry-cleaning business, a crafty, earthy worrier, determined to pursue a tawdry chance. The card game is not a good or a service but a pleasure indulged by tough men who want to win something they have not earned: they want luck to replace work. Many of the players, like the game, are connected to organized crime. Squirrel knows that if Markie’s card game is robbed, the person who will be suspected will be the game organizer Markie, who admitted to having robbed his own card game once in the past. Here, theft will substitute for honest effort. The plan to rob the game seems smart to the planners, but an objective person can guess that crime is many things—even seeming inevitable or necessary, depending on one’s desperation or lack of opportunity—without ever being smart. To elude suspicion, the robbers would have to be accurate in their low opinion of the intelligence of others. The card game is robbed, awkwardly but successfully; but Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell are not accurate in their estimation of others.

Brad Pitt’s confident, low-voiced enforcer, Jackie Cogan, enters to a Johnny Cash song about a man who arrives taking names of who is to be freed and who is to be blamed, a song that connects Pitt’s character to mythology, to musical, cinematic, and social mythology. (The other songs in the film are ironic counterpoint in their sweet cheeriness, or they make explicit the delusion or greed of the characters.) Brad Pitt as Jackie meets with a middle-manager in the criminal organization, a man who gives him instructions and acts as a driver, played by Richard Jenkins, someone who complains about the corporate mentality of those he works for, men who lack initiative or courage. One recalls that corporations are legal fictions: existing in law, but without body, spirit, or will. Corporations allow for the hiding of genuine impulse—or disguise the fact that there is no genuine mission, passion, or virtue. It is amusing that we never see those corporate leaders (power is often beyond the ordinary view). The talk between Jackie and the middle manager, between Pitt and Jenkins, is believable—excellent work. Jackie is aware of both the actual crime and the perception of the crime as equal factors to be dealt with: Markie’s recent game may have been robbed by someone other than Markie but, having robbed his own game in the past, the likable Markie (Ray Liotta) has created the atmosphere of intolerable doubt about betrayal and punishment. Jackie may be intelligent, but his intelligence functions not above his world but deep within it (and Pitt, admirably, stays completely in character). Ray Liotta, usually menacing and perverse, is here soft and nearly warm as Markie, resembling William Shatner’s somewhat younger brother. Markie must be punished as a matter of public relations; and he is interrogated and brutally beaten. It becomes clear that different realities are in play: survival, money, professionalism, friendship, public opinion, law, desperation, addiction, self-indulgence.

Killing Them Softly is a simple tale about character, action, and consequences; and its assumptions and implications, like the consequences, are dark. The film has its glamour and its grime. The drug addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) is nearly grotesque: dirty, sweaty, even greasy, all id and crude intelligence. Russell shoots up and talks, and his friend Frankie (Scoot McNairy), his colleague in the card game robbery, realizes that the people who should not have learned about their participation in the crime—the men who were robbed, and those they work for; and organizers of other games and enforcers—must know now. There is a contract out on Frankie and Russell—and on Squirrel or Johnny (Vincent Curatola), the dry-cleaning business manager who suggested the crime. The Brad Pitt character, Jackie, does not want to be the one to kill Squirrel as the two men have done business in the past; and Jackie realizes that familiarity releases emotion. Jackie talks about how people draw on friendship or fellow feeling for mercy. “Don’t like feelings. Don’t want to think about ‘em,” Jackie says. It is interesting to note that these tough men have feelings but try to evade them—in themselves and others. Jackie thinks it is possible to kill someone softly, from a distance, discreetly, with a lack of fuss, but the killings we see do not lack brutality. Another associate, Mickey, is hired to kill Squirrel; but Mickey (James Gandolfini) has seen better days: he is distracted, sentimental, and given to drink and whores. Mickey (Gandolfini) talks about trouble with his wife and his mistress, and having been arrested recently for having a hunting gun, and worried about parole violations.

The official political commentary that is heard is the movie’s philosophical score, with President George W. Bush stating that the American economic system is complex and that confidence is at the bottom of it. Confidence is an interesting concept, as it has more to do with belief than with fact. Of course, certain criminals were known as confidence men, men of disguise and dissimulation, men who exploited the faith of others. Pitt as Jackie warns an associate to take care with the execution of his duties, that there is always a first time to make a mistake that can be significant. Both the economic system which the president is trying to manage—free enterprise, with crises in banking, housing, and employment, as well as expensive foreign wars—and the criminal enterprise in which Pitt’s enforcer operates depend on the confidence of participants, whether confidence refers to the faith of workers or customers, or the deception created by bosses. It is chilling to realize that the gap between the high and the low is not at all large, even while much of the film is concerned with a quality of life that is cheap and dumb and mean. If life can be described as wheels within wheels, then there are relationships of money within relationships of money, and circles of violence within circles of violence. If America is a land of opportunity, why are there poor people? If the system of justice works, why does organized crime persist? In Killing Them Softly, the criminals who betrayed their fellows—Squirrel, Frankie, Russell—are treated as easily disposable. Yet, Mickey, through neglect of his duties, by his not mastering the details for an execution, is making himself expendable. Mickey tries to maintain his self-esteem and the public regard in which he is held, but his talk is crazy and vulgar, largely irrelevant. Jackie says that he needed the Mickey of years past. Russell is arrested, and Pitt’s character Jackie gets Frankie to betray first Squirrel then himself. Jackie tells Frankie that he has choices, offering him a sense of possibility and power, but Frankie’s choices are all bad or false. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is infused with feelings of concern, fear, guilt, and worry; and the observer senses that Frankie might have been a decent man if his own circumstances had been different, though we do not know when or where those bad circumstances began. Gangster films rarely provide a long or complex history, preferring immediate circumstances and impulse and violent act; making them fantasies of crime and punishment, or fantasies of crime, escape, and treasure. The rules of criminals are similar but simpler and more fatal than the rules in much of the larger society; but of course there are different kinds of death, including career death and social death, deaths that take away the potential and power of individuals even as their bodies continue to breathe. We can be terribly alone in our fates. Yet, shown in Killing Them Softly is a political victory speech by Barack Obama affirming Americans as one people, as a community, an affirmation of democracy, opportunity, and hope, ideals that Jackie Cogan mocks as dreamy rhetoric. “America’s not a country—it’s just a business,” Jackie says.

It is interesting to consider Killing Them Softly in light of Inside Job, the film documentary on the 2008 international financial crisis, in which the mismanagement of the finance industry meant that millions of people around the world lost their jobs, their savings, and their homes. The acclaimed Charles Ferguson documentary begins with a focus on Iceland, a country that had been stable: an organized society known for its uniquely beautiful landscapes, Iceland went through a period of financial deregulation for which both the environment and the economy suffered. The privatization of banks and bad loans—loans in great amounts for questionable projects—and personal self-indulgence produced disasters. “Finance took over and more or less wrecked the place,” says a professor. The country’s banks collapsed; and were a harbinger of things to come in other parts of the globe. In the United States, the failure of Lehman Brothers and the insurance corporation A.I.G. were prime examples of mismanagement and private greed and government collusion. The excesses of Wall Street would produce daily coverage in public media, old and new; and in Inside Job the cities, institutions, and powerful figures in America and elsewhere are presented in great cinematography, with clear and logical but complex and overwhelmingly convincing data, served by expert editing. Thirty million people would lose their jobs around the world; and the destruction of international wealth seems without precedent.

The worlds shown in Killing Them Softly and Inside Job are the worlds of confident, selfish men with simple, single ideas: get money, and then get more money. One would imagine greater distance between the best and worst in society, but both liberty and desperation frees people to pursue their impulses. If the original purpose of business was to provide goods and services the community could not provide for itself as individuals, that goal may be its purpose no longer: business has become its own purpose. Is it the nature of business to know idea, execution, growth, prosperity, faltering, trouble, and restoration or transformation? To what extent is business ethical? Can anything that does not have the pursuit of virtue or good at its root be truly ethical? Can business ethics be ensured through individual principle, communal standard, professional regimentation, or government supervision? If that is so, why are there cycles of crises in capitalism—crises that involve not only the failure of business plans but the failure of principles and purpose?

In Inside Job, the roots of the 2008 crisis are identified as the division between real productivity and the rewards of the investment world, and the deregulation of the finance world beginning in the 1980s, under President Reagan and continuing with Bill Clinton. Following the great depression of the economy in the late 1920s and 1930s, there had been a division between banks that provided services to ordinary customers and banks that invested money in the stock market. Stability prevailed. Then, the Glass-Steagall act was overthrown: deregulation allowed banks established for savings to invest in the stock market. The gambling was wonderful: brokers became rich. Smart people, who might have been attracted to other industries in the past, were attracted now to the finance industry; and they created new products, sometimes without concern for their real world consequences: derivatives, in which debts could be sold or insured, were largely without regulation. As well, there increased the mingling of government and finance personnel, with people moving from one to the other, taking influence and money with them. Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers are two influential, implicated figures, men whose decisions seemed to benefit the financial industry rather than the larger American economy. When the Commodity Futures Trading Commission tried to regulate derivatives, during the Clinton administration, that effort was opposed by Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan and other officials—with Congress banning regulation of derivatives. Government regulatory agencies were gutted; and finance world ratings agencies were complicit. There were brave, perceptive people that tried to object to the way business was being done, but the warnings of those individuals were dismissed and sometimes reputations damaged. What followed the lack of legal and financial restraint was criminal: money laundering, defrauding of customers, investments in corrupt foreign governments, drug money connections, and the evasion of taxes. There was a great deal of creative accounting. It is an almost unbelievable story—except that it is history, rather than fiction.

It is fascinating to see and hear some of these people—Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, and Henry Paulson: they look and sound as if they have not encountered reality or true reason in years; but, established as authorities, they have been enablers of different kinds of indulgences, public and personal. Amorality is rampant. It is shocking but not surprising to learn that companies sold financial products in which they did not believe—products they sold and insured, betting against the success of the products (firms would make money if the products failed)—and shocking but not surprising to learn that the risk-taking professional behavior of stock brokers was replicated in the risks they took in private life, with drug use and prostitutes. The usual connections—logic, sense; health, serenity; decency, empathy—were broken. What accounts for the criminality or decadence of people of privilege? The crimes of the poor have been attributed to their inferior bodies, minds, and spirits, to the disfiguring deprivations of poverty—but what of the crimes of those with power and privilege? Are their acts committed simply because they can—and want to do what they do? The tragedy of the recent financial crisis, neither the first nor the last, is that ordinary people, trying to lead decent lives and prepare for the future and security of their families, were betrayed by those who knew better, betrayed by the rich and powerful: while some families were encouraged to take home loans they could not afford, workers were invested in pension funds loaded with derivatives, guided by the high ratings of derivatives awarded by evaluating agencies in the finance world, very bad investments; and the agencies—in the position to gather and analyze the facts of business—claimed that their ratings were merely opinions. The warnings of individuals and organizations, of the International Monetary Fund and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the efforts of journalists at Fortune magazine and the Washington Post, could not slow the rush to invest. It was the crash of Lehman Brothers, one of the legendary financial firms, that was the sound that woke everyone up: then, realizing how interconnected the corporate world had become, with so much of it built on diversified ownership and bad debt, the commercial paper market collapsed; and it became difficult for businesses and individuals to borrow money. Employment plunged. A global recession followed.

What, if any, lessons have been learned? Banks are larger than ever. Wall Street is making money, while ordinary people and businesses that actually harvest goods or make products face uncertainty. American manufacturing is diminished. There is greater inequality of personal wealth. The separation between the real economy and the economy of Wall Street remains. The change that candidate Barack Obama argued for has yielded some progressive social policy but only weak financial world reform. How could things be different when President Barack Obama recycled some of the same cast of characters for his government as before, power and privilege having protected them from responsibility (ironically)? The Occupy Wall Street movement, with protests beginning in Manhattan and spreading to other parts of the globe, began with a sense of outrage, the refusal to accept business as usual; and it was the most promising public response in decades.

Article Submitted on July 10, 2013

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 18, Issue 10 / October 2014 Film Reviews   andrew dominik   charles ferguson   crime film