Who's Worse in "Killing Them Softly," Bankers or Politicians?

“Killing Them Softly” clearly takes aim at the 2008 Financial Crisis, but who comes off worse in this critique, Wall Street bankers or Washington politicians?

To answer, we first have to figure out who stands for the bankers and politicians in this movie, which is not as obvious as initial reviewers assumed. Brad Pitt's character, Jackie, also needs analysis.


If anyone in “Killing Them Softly” represents Washington politicians, it’s Driver (Richard Jenkins) and his bosses.

Driver has the classic markers of a politician, such as a suit and tie (formality), glasses (theoretical knowledge), and a professed belief in the American nation and founding fathers (as Driver tells Jackie, “’Out of many, we are one.’ You hear that line? Line's for you…Oh, now you’re going to have a go at Jefferson?).

Driver (Richard Jenkins)
Driver’s bosses also clearly have the stereotypical qualities of Washington politicians:

·They make decisions very slowly, through complicated group consensus (Driver characterizes his bosses as “No decision-makers.” Jackie responds, “What is it, a committee?...This country is fucked, I'm telling you.”)

·They barely understand what it is they’re trying to regulate (Driver says, “I got to take them by the hand and I got to walk them slowly through it....” Driver himself took a long time to understand what Jackie was telling him about the importance of public perception of the main robbery.)

·Even though they’re supposedly in charge, they ask others to tell them what to do (Driver repeatedly asks Jackie what he thinks they should do next).

Granted, the lines can seem blurry, especially since we never see Driver's bosses. Driver’s suit and tie and reference to “corporate mentality” could also fit in a Wall Street office. But in light of the numerous striking overlaps, it’s fair to say that Driver and his bosses primarily represent politicians, not bankers. 


Card-playing mobsters like Markie in "Killing Them Softly" obviously stand for Wall Street bankers, given their shared focus on gambling and profit, which eventually crashes the economy. And like Wall Street, the mob’s business relies crucially on confidence—starting with the fundamental faith that your money won’t be stolen. Once that confidence gets shaken, everything falls apart. After Markie (Ray Liotta) robs his own card game, all the games shut down, causing a total “economic collapse.” Eventually they get back in business, but after Markie’s game gets robbed again, the crisis is so bad that Jackie (Brad Pitt) gets called in to solve it. Jackie tells Driver that Markie has to be killed, to deter others from robbing card games and further undermining faith in the mob system (“If people think he [Markie] did it and he's still walking around, you're gonna’ have kids waiting in line knock them fucking games over”). Based on his understanding of mob logic and the word on the street, Jackie says that they need to restore confidence in the games, so people can make money again.

This mob premium on confidence is precisely matched by what we hear about Wall Street throughout the film. In fact, just before Jackie tells Driver that they have to restore confidence, we hear President Bush delivering a very similar message on TV during the card-game robbery:

“As uncertainty has grown, many banks have restricted lending, credit markets have frozen, and families and businesses have found it harder to borrow money. We're in the midst of a serious financial crisis, and the federal government is responding with decisive action. We boosted confidence in money market mutual funds…and major investors….”

And in case anyone missed it, we hear Bush repeating this same message in the very next scene, as Driver's car radio plays right before Jackie tells him they need to restore confidence:

“There has been a widespread loss of confidence. …And major sectors of America's financial system are at risk of shutting down. The government's top economic experts warn that without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic.”

Then, in the later scene where Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives to carry out a hit, we hear Bush stress confidence yet a third time, saying, “Confidence in our financial systems is essential to the smooth operation of our economy, and recently that confidence has been shaken.”

The overlap between these real-world media clips and the mob’s focus on confidence is overwhelming: the mob is clearly being equated with Wall Street. But where does Jackie fit in all this?

Brad Pitt’s Character

Matt Thomas insightfully argues that “Killing Them Softly” draws a sharp contrast between two worlds: the bankers and politicians who escaped punishment in 2008 vs. mobsters who paid for their mistakes with their lives (Markie and the three low-level criminals who robbed the second card game). By interweaving scenes of mobster killings with soundbites from politicians during the 2008 bailouts, the movie highlights and condemns the lack of accountability for the elites responsible for the Financial Crisis.

I completely agree. Brad Pitt’s character Jackie is a fantasy of a Super Punisher who makes people pay for their mistakes—a wish-fulfillment image of what should have metaphorically happened to the bankers and politicians in 2008, but never did. Jackie is an imagined third party, above and beyond the politicians and bankers. This makes much more sense than asserting that Jackie represents the actual political regulators in 2008, who we all know bailed out the bankers. Instead of actual events, Jackie comes out of Western mythology, as that ominous Johnny Cash song announces when Jackie first appears on screen ("And he decides who to free and who to blame…When the man comes around").

Building on Thomas's excellent analysis, I would just add that other critiques apply differently to the movie's symbolic bankers and politicians.   

Ultimate Implications

“Killing Them Softly” offers a powerful critique of the 2008 bailouts on multiple levels.

The critique of Wall Street bankers partly comes from implying that they’re white-male mobsters: gambling, stealing, lying, killing, etc. And as Thomas rightly observed, showing mobsters paying dearly for their mistakes creates a biting reminder of what did not happen with real bankers in 2008. You can feel these critiques in your guts.

In addition, the politicians come off as clueless. Calling the politician character “Driver” is funny because he’s not actually in control, even over his own car. When they first meet, Jackie immediately starts telling “Driver” where to drive and park (“Bang a right and go a couple blocks”). Jackie then corrects Driver for his erroneous, naive assumption that the robbery was committed by “kids,” and he repeatedly explains the importance of punishing Markie. Delays, confusion, and hesitation on the part of Driver and his bosses cause Markie to suffer a brutal beating, before they finally comprehend Jackie’s advice and have Markie killed quickly and mercifully. These weak, dim-witted politicians claim to be the “Driver” and the “bosses,” but Jackie is actually the one running the show. Richard Jenkins never really had a chance going toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt.
Jackie (Brad Pitt)
The corollary is hard to avoid. Washington pretends to control Wall Street banks, but even in a major crisis, they don’t know how, and they just end up doing what Wall Street says—giving them billions of dollars. In the media clips heard throughout the film, President Bush repeatedly tells the American people why they have to bail out the banks, but he’s just doing his job as a figure head: addressing the public and maintaining the illusion that the government is in charge. Bush is really just passing along the give-us-money confidence argument he got from Wall Street, alluded to in his mention of “the government’s top economic experts.” In reality, a major such expert was Henry Paulson, who pushed hard for the bailouts as Bush’s Treasury Secretary…and whose previous job was CEO of Goldman Sachs on Wall Street! This, too, gets pointed out in a radio clip, heard as Markie pulls up in his car: “That is Mr. Paulson's [bailout] plan, former head of Goldman Sachs….We should not be rolled by our Wall Street exec, who's masquerading as Secretary of the Treasury.” It’s hard not to see the parallels here to Jackie’s relationship with Driver and his politician bosses. Jackie is far from a Henry Paulson, but his superior insight into the mob and command over this crisis similarly expose how little understanding and control the politicians have.

Deciding who comes off worse in this critique, politicians or bankers, isn’t easy. It depends largely on whether you think it’s worse to cause mass suffering through stupidity or selfishness. Also, if you think Jackie’s steely determination to make money and set things right applies to Wall Street—that they would have eventually solved the problem on their own, out of basic profit motive—then they get a slight boost. Or if you think banks, too, are run by know-nothings like Driver, then they take another hit. And if you think Bush and Obama were right to call for national unity, the politicians get a little boost. Either way, there’s plenty of injustice and critique to go around in this film.

For a personal look at the actual Financial Crisis, you might also want to read Corner-Store Dreams. In this book, I tell the true story of my growing friendship with an immigrant owner of a convenience store who almost lost everything in 2008 due to Wall Street’s credit scheme, rather than any fault of his own. It’s a personal and anthropological story about trying to beat the odds by sticking together, overcoming racial differences, and understanding dreams. Or if you're looking for a movie reality check, see my post "3 Ways 'The Big Short' Movie Downplays Banker Fraud." Whether through these or any other sources, we need to keep analyzing and remembering the Financial Crisis of 2008, never thinking it was a freak accident that can't happen again.

Emotional Intelligence and Symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook"

Most people probably assume that compulsive superstitions are not a form of "emotional intelligence," but the movie "Silver Linings Playbook" suggests that they are, encouraging us to question our personal chaos threshold for symbolic interpretations.

The key phrase is "reading the signs," which gets used in conflicting ways over the course of this movie. "Reading the signs" first comes up in Nikki’s letter to Pat (Bradley Cooper), where she writes, “I have to say, if it’s me reading the signs, I need to see something to prove you're ready to resume our marriage.” Here, “reading the signs” amounts to emotional intelligence: accurately understanding Pat’s true emotional and mental condition.

However, just moments earlier in this scene, Tiffany used this exact same "signs" phrase to refer to the sports “superstitions” of Pat's father (Robert De Niro). She tells him, “Not that I give a fuck about football or your superstitions, but if it’s me reading the signs, I don’t send the Eagles guy whose personal motto is ‘Excelsior’ to a fucking Giants game….” Rather than emotional intelligence, "reading the signs" in this case is being used to mean bad, irrational thinking. We find out that Tiffany actually wrote Nikki's letter, but nobody notes that Tiffany has used "reading the signs" in seemingly contradictory ways—to mean both emotional intelligence and irrational superstition.

The dividing line between emotional intelligence and irrationality gets even blurrier at the end of the movie. In the scene after the dance competition, when Pat Sr. tells his son to go find Tiffany, he says, “You gotta’ pay attention to the signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back…and it’ll haunt you for the rest of your days like a curse.” His son is so happy that his father has finally understood his relationship with Tiffany that he responds, “I love you, Dad.” So Pat Sr.’s version of reading "the signs” transcends the phrase's previous dichotomy. In this final usage, reading the signs means both emotional intelligence (understanding his son’s emotional needs) and superstition (“pay attention to the signs…haunt you…like a curse”).

To its great credit, then, the movie blurs the lines between emotional intelligence and supposedly irrational superstitions, and suggests that they actually have a lot in common: namely, paying close attention to subtle aspects of the world, noticing patterns, making inferences, empathizing with others, and listening to your heart. To be sure, Pat explicitly suggests that people like him, Tiffany, and Danny (Chris Tucker) know more than other people, and Danny adds that they have a sixth sense, but these suggestions get undermined by Danny's failure to anticipate that the policeman would be showing up momentarily to take him back to the mental-health hospital. I think the elastic "reading the signs" phrase is more effective because it works on us at a more unconscious, non-explicit level, and it gets commonly used outside this movie.

But what about us audience members who also like to "read the signs" in movies by interpreting their hidden clues and symbolism? How should we differentiate between good movie interpretations and downright wacky ones, the equivalent of irrational superstitions? 

Test Your Chaos Threshold on These Symbolic Interpretations
To gauge where we each draw these lines, here's a question: Do any of the following interpretations of symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook" strike you as being too far out there?

Halloween=Death, Favors, and Chaos. Instead of Halloween night, why not set Tiffany and Pat’s tumultuous diner scene on Thanksgiving, Labor Day, or, for that matter, on a regular, non-holiday night? I'd say it's because Halloween's ritual symbolism resonates with what's happening here between Tiffany and Pat. Halloween is about Chaos (going out at night, acting scary)—a mood that resonates well with Tiffany smashing the dishes and storming out of the diner, turning this initially calm meeting upside down. More specifically, Trick or Treating centers on People Asking Others for Favors—which is the symbolic equivalent of Pat in the diner asking Tiffany to pass on his letter to Nikki. And of course Halloween involves symbols of Death (ghosts, skeletons, witches)—which fits with Tiffany talking about her husband’s death. Halloween symbolism resonates deeply with this scene.

Christmas=Love and Family Unity.  Tiffany and Pat finally declare their love for each other in late December, with Christmas decorations all around, and in the very last scene we see the whole extended family happily together in the house. This makes sense because Christmas stands for love and family unity in both popular conceptions and many movies, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Four Christmases" and, yes, Hallmark Christmas movies.

Ben Franklin=Father and Country. Pat Sr. says that nothing could be more American than the Philadelphia Eagles and Ben Franklin (one of the “founding fathers”), and the dance competition happens at the Ben Franklin Hotel, on the same night that the Eagles win. Therefore, the movie symbolically equates Pat Sr. with Ben Franklin as father figures. And when we see the whole family and Danny happily together in Pat Sr.'s house watching football at the end of the movie, we're seeing an image of unity at multiple levels—a healing union with the father, the city of Philadelphia, and the entire United States of America. The national healing especially applies to the 2008 Financial Crisis, which robbed Pat Sr. and others of their retirement savings. After winning the big parlay bet, Pat Sr. says in the final seconds of the movie that he will be getting his restaurant, meaning he will continue as the primary breadwinner for his family. Like the legendary Ben Franklin, Pat Sr. is portrayed as a white-male benefactor.+

Names. Names in this movie are significant. For example, "Tiffany Maxwell" implies she'll try to get herself and Pat maximally well. And it can't be a coincidence that the balding history teacher who's having an affair with Pat's wife is named Doug Culpepper, as in he's got a cold pepper or he's culling pepper (stealing sex) from Pat. But what about "crabby snacks," the term used twice to refer to food prepared by Pat's mother (Jackie Weaver)? I'd say these snacks get this name because they're supposed to distract and calm Pat Sr., who gets nervous and crabby when he's watching an Eagles game with a lot of money riding on it.

What do you think? Too far out? Personally, I think the only interpretation that’s getting out there is the last one about crabby snacks. The previous ones are solid according to the usual evidence standards for such interpretations: there’s a high degree of match between the interpretations, movie details, and other cultural patterns. Like acceptable "superstitions," these interpretations strive to be based on paying close attention, noticing patterns, making inferences, and listening to your heart.

And even when it comes to crabby snacks, the interpretation that's probably the most questionable and least consequential, I still like wondering if there’s something to it. I don’t mind this state of uncertainty, an in-between state that often emerges when you’re reaching the outer limits of an inquiry. In fact, some of the best insights emerge from such ambiguous gray zones, as scientists and artists say. Physicist Erik Mazur, for example, said, “Think of confusion as an opportunity to learn” (Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing). If you didn’t flee at the first mention of symbolism, there’s a good chance that you also have a high enough chaos threshold to be comfortable exploring such interpretive gray zones.

Dream Symbolism
Going beyond movies, you may also sometimes “read the signs” in other ways, such as looking at your night dreams for possible clues to future events. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. In national surveys, roughly 75% of Americans say they believe that dreams sometimes predict the future. I myself am so fascinated with these beliefs that I wrote a whole book about them, titled Corner-Store Dreams.

In this book, I tell the true story of my unlikely friendship with Ranulfo Juárez, who in 2006 asked his dreams to tell him whether he should buy a small bakery so that he and his wife could make the bread and pastries they knew as kids in Mexico. Or would the bakery bankrupt his family and send him back to working the fields of Oregon? Sifting through his dreams every morning in search of answers forced Ranulfo to look deeply at mysteries like the love and randomness of the universe and his life as a U.S. citizen. Ranulfo also enlisted me, an Anglo professor, as his confidante and sidekick in this quest, and, together, we confronted scam artists and naysayers, cultural differences and personal fears, and ultimately the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Corner-Store Dreams is nonfiction, but like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s a story that focuses on people “reading the signs” during a personal and national crisis around 2008. It turns out that Hollywood movies and personal dreams aren’t as far apart as they might seem. Both are often based on creative symbolism and narratives that deal with contradictions and tensions that we’re pondering with our unconscious minds. So whether in movies or dreams, I’d say reading the signs is a good bet.

+ In real life, Ben Franklin advocated for the emancipation of slaves and led the first abolitionist society in the colonies, yet he also previously owned slaves.

The Cultural Meaning of Halloween and Thanksgiving Pumpkins

Isn’t it remarkable that pumpkins play a major role in two of our biggest holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, yet we don’t often talk about that connection? Maybe that’s because Halloween’s Jack-O’-Lantern and Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie are so different—yet scholars argue that this contrast is exactly what makes these pumpkins so important and interconnected. They say that Thanksgiving pumpkin pie ultimately represents the conquest of Life over Death.

To get to this deeper level, start by noting an obvious fact: Jack-O’-Lanterns are directed at outsiders, not the family. Even if the homeowner recognizes a few neighbors among the Halloween trick-or-treaters, they’re not invited in for a full, sit-down meal, unlike Thanksgiving dinner. The Jack-O’-Lantern doesn’t even look edible; it’s raw, bland, bulky, and often partly rotten. In his playful way, Jack is there to scare you, not feed you. But for precisely that reason, he prepares you for what's coming at Thanksgiving.
Wikimedia, By huk_flickr (originally posted to Flickr as pumpkin pie)

Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving is the opposite of the Jack-O'-Lantern. The pie is eaten by family and friends inside the home, not by strangers outside. The pumpkin you saw a few weeks ago at a farm stand or on a neighbor’s doorstep on Halloween is now unrecognizable. Through pureeing and cooking, the pumpkin is no longer raw nature; it’s been domesticated and integrated into the family. The contrast effect is key. The homey aura of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is heightened by its striking contrast with the inedible, outdoor, ghostly pumpkin of Halloween.

Moreover, whereas the Jack-O’-Lantern playfully represents Death, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving represents Life, literally through physical nourishment, but also socially through its role in a holiday dedicated to reaffirming the family, the source of future generations. Scary ol’ Jack has been cooked, tamed, and turned into food that helps keep the family going. The pumpkin has completed its ceremonial journey from outside to in, moving from living Nature in the fields, to symbolic Death on our doorsteps, to new Life in our body and soul. Through this and other sharp contrasts between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Life overcomes Death. These two holidays are connected, then, and pumpkins, despite their humble appearance, do incredibly important symbolic work for us.

Flckr, Pumpkin Pie, by browniesfordinner, CC 2.0

Of course, most people don’t feel the need to talk about such pumpkin symbolism, and no single interpretation will ring true with the millions of diverse people who celebrate these holidays. Holiday traditions change in the hands of different social groups, both within the U.S. and around the world, so to understand the meaning of today’s Halloween pumpkins, it doesn’t help much to look at their historical origins in remote Irish customs from the distant past. While interesting, those historical curiosities distract us from what we already intuitively know about these holidays. Better to trust those intuitions and look at what’s happening in the here and now with your own holiday pumpkins. If you do, chances are you’ll see that Halloween and Thanksgiving are flip sides of the same coin.

(Please email me at pwogan@willamette.edu if you'd like to read more essays like this about holiday symbolism.)

Finol, José Enrique, “The Semiotics of Ritual: Halloween in an American Community,” Opción 21: 83-97, 1996.

Ott, Cindy, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Santino, Jack, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances.” Western Folklore 42: 1-20, 1983.

Tuleja, Tad, “Pumpkins,” in Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables, David S. Wilson and Angus K. Gillespie, eds., Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Williamson, Margaret Holmes, “Family Symbolism in Festivals,” in Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity, Theodore Caplow et al., eds., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?

This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and culture.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.

Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

Quint is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. Moreover, at an unconscious, symbolic level, Quint is creating an equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says about sharks"he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ‘ya, doesn't seem to be livin'"could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine, 1941. Flickr, Marion Doss.

Shark fin. Flickr, Anita363.

Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows some viewers—at least the ones who know about WWIIto reflect on some of the most vexing, confusing aspects of "the Good War."

In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was fully justified, whereas in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. (In a related generational shift, people today are less likely to be disturbed by a doll's eyes or uncannily-realistic robot face than earlier generations were.) Even those older Americans who felt that dropping the bomb was necessary may have later come to believe that Americans lost the moral high ground when we killed thousands of women and children, violating a basic moral ideal that had been in place throughout our entire history as a nation. Many Americans don't like to talk about these ethical problemsbut most do like watching this movie and rooting for the destruction of a shark that was hellbent on killing us, including our children.
Hiroshima bomb cloud, U.S. government photo.

Jaws ending.

Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create confusing, disturbing oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, between abstract concepts and real beings, between death and life. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you. WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.

Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier Rasmus say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
Unfortunately, such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases and the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, but I would hope that such prejudices are being left behind by now.

Jaws, on the other hand, will remain popular as long as people continue to wonder and worry about war, death, and stereotypes.

Further Reading:
See also my post on shark attacks, tears, and the USS Indianapolis, and my post asking, Why do good people resent Hooper and scientists like him?

Here's my co-authored book chapter on "Jaws," with more extended analysis

For more on Quint and many others' feelings of revulsion and confusion at dolls' eyes and similarly uncanny, hybrid phenomena, see research on the "uncanny valley in reactions to humanoid robots and "creepy dolls." And for the research cited above on contemporary reactions to uncannily human robot faces, see this short article.

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.