The World Is Cold: Fallen Idols and False Prophets in Post-Crash America

2012 Cinema Essay - Fallen Idols and False Prophets in Post-Crash America (Killing Them Softly)

In the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, many of the articles of faith which upheld the economic edifice began to dissolve like the pillars of salt many suspected them to be. The institutions which promised prosperity and opportunity now seemed criminally profligate and structurally compromised. The authority of the system was now being questioned in ways that had not been permitted in mainstream circles since the end of the Cold War, the declaration of “the End of History” and the anointing of neoliberalism as the default for Western economies. It seemed as though the pieces were in flux for the first time since the aftermath of 9/11; the world could be remade anew — the curtain had been thrown back, and the idols who had stood as a testament to the old order’s vaunted innovation and benevolence had been exposed.

Of course, the system has a way of rebounding. One thing that can be said in capitalism’s favor is its adaptability; not having a moral center has its advantages. One strategy for achieving social catharsis is the use of culture as a safety valve. The anger that was brewing had to find a suitable outlet, and in creating fictional villains, some of the heat was deflected from the real architects of misery and ruin. The cinema that emerged in the years after the financial crisis presented an array of flawed men who had been entrusted with power, and were struggling to maintain the world they had created. The year 2012 was the first in which cinema could adequately assess the material and psychological toll of the crash. The box office tells its own story: audiences were looking for saviors, and whether it was Batman, the Avengers or James Bond, the entertainment establishment offered an assortment of legacy characters who could hold back the tide of chaos and devastation (with The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen as a populist outlier).

Away from the multiplex, there were no such consolations; no heroes were swooping in to save us from the men who had engineered the downfall. No filmmaker has presented more flawed father figures than Paul Thomas Anderson, and his budding cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in The Master (2012) offered a variation on the theme which spoke to contemporary disaffection. Lancaster projects authority and erudition, drawing in rudderless souls with the promise of secret knowledge; he constructs a doctrine around his peccadillos, lending an air of legitimacy to his appetites; he leverages the optimism of post-war America, the vainglory of the victor, to marshal warriors to his cause. But Lancaster is only a front man, a transcriber for the ideas of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who hovers on the periphery, content to let her husband hog the limelight and peddle her nostrums with the force of his loquacity. In a market glutted with aspiring masters, Lancaster’s plausibility sets him apart in the 2012 film; he is able to summon forth the animal spirits that are required for an ideology to take root.

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The dynamic between Lancaster and Peggy is not dissimilar from that between Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand, with one serving as the other’s vessel, insinuating the author’s ideas into the corridors of power and transforming her notions into digestible doctrine. Lancaster is the upright superego to the rampant id of his newest acolyte, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Hoffman’s character recognizes a fellow scoundrel, and just as Lancaster is a conduit for Peggy’s ideas, Freddie is a conduit for Lancaster’s darker impulses, which come to the fore when he is challenged. Lancaster defends his philosophical turf with the ruthlessness which underlies his humanitarian rhetoric, the rapacious spirit which undergirds the empire of the unconscious he and Peggy are building. In Anderson’s 2012 film, Freddie is the face of a disgrace which stalks Lancaster; the fear of the cause being exposed as a series of extemporaneous rituals which assume weight by harvesting consent from those willing to orient their lives in line with its precepts. The promise can never be fulfilled, but Lancaster is content to keep his audience’s gaze fixed on the horizon.

In Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer (2012), 13-year-old Flik Royale (Jules Brown) is sent from his comfortable life in Atlanta to the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he will spend his summer vacation with his grandfather, Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), a bishop at the Little Heaven church. Flik’s mother hopes that Enoch will provide moral instruction to her pampered son; Enoch is presented as a monument of rectitude amidst the “shady people” who populate the projects, and a model of manhood after Flik’s father was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Enoch tries to convert Flik from one faith to another, urging him to become a spiritual rather than an economic subject. Flik’s affiliation to an acquisitive model of upward mobility is premised on an increasingly false set of assumptions, something which begins to dawn on Flik as he sees the other side of life. Both Enoch and Flik find themselves worshiping diminished gods, institutions whose failings will be felt most acutely by the powerless.

Spending time at the church, Flik hears the alcoholic Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) rail against the economic iniquities which President Barack Obama has upheld, despite the great expectations and uplifting rhetoric of candidate Obama. Zee asks “Where’s my bailout?” and tells Flik “You ain’t got no future. They gonna spend it all on Wall Street.” To the denizens of Red Hook in Lee’s 2012 film, Obama is a fallen redeemer, the “black president to deliver us” they had prayed for had left the existing structures intact, and signaled his allegiance. For the congregants of Little Heaven, religious faith serves to soften the realities of political disappointment, and Bishop Enoch offers a more accessible model for salvation. But Enoch is trapped in Little Heaven, selling a tradition which cannot stand up to the exigencies of the epoch, preaching to his dwindling flock that “I’ll make you whole, I’ll make you well.” It is a different set of promises to the ones proffered by Wall St. — that its spiritual dividends will accrue to the righteous. Like their president, the soothing sentiments and soaring oratory offer scant succor to the faithful when the discrepancy between words and deeds become too glaring to ignore any more.

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Flik learns a valuable lesson: the strength of one’s convictions come from within — they cannot be sanctioned by any political, religious or economic entity; they cannot be endorsed by any doctrine or text. When Enoch is revealed to have molested a 12-year-old-boy in his previous parish, Flik grasps that his life has been built on the secrets that institutions keep, that nothing is stable or absolute, that the monuments are built on shifting foundations. Enoch traded on the authority of the institution he represented, doling out inducements to the most vulnerable among his flock. The Red Hook projects serve as a model for the wider economy in the 2012 film; what had previously functioned as a stepping stone for successive generations of immigrants has become a millstone for the economically disenfranchised. The way into a dwindling middle class seems distant, and new strategies must be devised by people like Box (Nate Parker), an aspiring gangster and rapper who grasps that the projects are “the dream cemetery,” and buys into the rapacious logic of “the hustle” sold via cultural products. The economy and the church stand for the same failure: the same stunted hope, the same deferred change, the same nebulous redemption.

Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012) is a chilling example of how easily we can dehumanize each other in the face of authority and economic necessity — it is all the more unsettling for being based on a real-life incident. Becky (Dreama Walker) is barely hanging on to her job in fast food, while her manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is struggling to hold everything together at this branch of the ChickWich franchise. Sandra receives a phone call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), claiming that Becky has been accused of stealing money from a customer. Like Lancaster and Enoch, Daniels is another voice of false authority acting in its own interest. The man understands the degree to which people will be willing to comply with his demands if he is able to present a plausible impression, and to have an answer for every query. What results is Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority taken to Kafkaesque lengths, as the indignities of low-wage work in the service sector become the rationale for humiliation. The procedures of the franchise’s daily routine blend seamlessly into the mental conditioning which allows Daniels to lay out demeaning scenarios in which the employees serve as pawns.

Daniels plays out a corrosive LARP, posing as a police officer to pursue his mean-spirited sport. He derives his joy from the unease he is able to create, implicating his targets by recruiting their private circles. Sandra’s boyfriend, Van (Bill Camp), asks Daniels “Is this okay?” before committing sexual assault on Becky, with the understanding that he is helping the investigation. Compliance unpacks our propensity to bend to perceived power, to put our own instincts to one side in the face of institutional credibility. Once Daniels has been able to establish his bona fides in the 2012 film, there is nowhere that Sandra cannot be led by him. She is told “This is procedure,” wooed by the comfort of official codes and conventions which lend weight to what she is about to do. Sandra justifies her actions by explaining that “I did what I was told to do,” echoing those throughout history who have overseen deleterious activities by corrupt institutions; the institution instills its own values, permitting a distorted view. The tension is palpable between what the employees intuitively know to be right and the lines they are being asked to cross. But nevertheless, Sandra proceeds; she is the crucial conduit between those who make the orders and those who execute them. It is disturbing how quickly Sandra adjusts; she is the proverbial boiling frog, slowly acclimated to the new logic, drawing everyone in.

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For a system to be dominant, it requires everyone to reflexively identify with it. Daniels is able to allay the suspicions of people like Sandra and Van by effectively deputizing them, flattering them by assuring them that they are his “eyes on the ground,” providing them with a stake in the game. Once inculcated into the logic of the game, the threat of expulsion from it is a powerful deterrent, and Daniels wields this threat with merciless precision, laying out the consequences of non-compliance: professional expulsion, financial ruin, social ignominy. Equally important is the apportioning of blame, and the establishing of hate figures. Compliance makes clear how easy it is for those on the margins to be branded a perpetrator. Becky is told by Daniels that “You’re the one that’s causing all the problems,” echoing the kind of victim blaming which runs through  from subprime mortgages to police brutality to rape culture — it is incumbent upon those trying to hold institutions to account to prove their virtue. When Becky’s co-worker, Kevin (Philip Ettinger), refuses to fall into line and questions what Daniels is asking him to do, he is branded “unprofessional.” Compliance makes clear that those who make the most fervent soldiers are often the most outwardly respectable.

One such soldier is Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the billionaire manager of hedge fund Miller Capital in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage (2012). Miller is known as “the oracle” who “took a bet on the housing crisis” and won big. He is about to sell his company, but certain improprieties in the fund’s accounts put the merger at risk — chiefly a $412 million loan designed to cover up the losses from a deal on a Russian copper mine that went awry as a result of geopolitical instability. Just as Miller’s professional life is a matter of compartmentalization, his personal life is a high-wire act of negotiation between the demands of his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta). The catalyzing incident of Arbitrage serves as a perfect metaphor for the post-crash world. As Miller is driving with Julie on a trip upstate, he falls asleep at the wheel and flips the car, abandoning the flaming wreck with Julie’s body inside. Miller represents the heedless financial titans who sold the public on an asset bubble. As he surveys the damage his empire of illusion has wrought, he grasps that his personal and professional subterfuge will be dragged into the light and scrutinized for the first time.

Miller’s “regal, wise” demeanor begins to crack (nobody seems to communicate strain quite like Gere), and the version of himself he has sold so successfully threatens to be eclipsed by the losses and wounds that can only be hidden for so long. Miller must conceal the bleeding for long enough that the merger will go through, and he can cash out with his aura of victory intact. Jarecki’s screenplay has a troubling touch of “white man’s burden” to it — Miller informs his morally outraged daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), that “everybody works for me”; he tells Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of his former driver who helps him out on the night of the crash, that “people rely on me.” Miller is the great white provider who opens up the checkbook to make problems disappear, but he has none of the liability that Jimmy contends with as a Black man; he doesn’t grasp that there are problems that money cannot fix, that his much-vaunted philanthropy can only extend so far in buying an ounce of redemption. Brooke has grown up swathed in the lies agreed upon, the myth of probity, and she is let down by her idol in the 2012 film.

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What is apparent in Arbitrage is the gravitational pull of money — Jarecki himself is not immune to it, urging the audience to view Miller’s machinations as a tragedy. Everyone orbiting Gere’s character struggles to keep the lie intact, the integrity of wealth that he represents. Money has its own moral force, swathing the landscape in a trembling veil of silence. Everyone must bend in order for Miller to “soar on princely wings” to his next endeavor; there will be more bodies left in the wreckage, but the responsibility of the mantle demands nothing less. When Ellen tells him that he broke their little girl’s heart, Miller responds that “she’ll be better for it” because “the world is cold.” Miller occupies a distant continent, miles away from the world of conscious capitalism which Brooke believed herself to be a citizen of. The 2012 film invites viewers into the upper reaches of this cold, collapsing world; the opposite end of which is captured in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012) — it is understood that everyone must grab what they can before the whole sordid lie is revealed and the bottom falls out. Miller admits that “the markets are a disaster right now,” but within that disfunction is the space for men with coldness in their souls to prevail. 

This disaster is felt most acutely by those who occupy the bottom rung — like Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) in Killing Them Softly two small-time crooks looking to find the start-up capital to build something meaningful. The terms of the deal are drawn out in the starkest terms: Frankie laments “all the shit they’re handing out” at probation, paltry solutions which offer no way out of poverty. Frankie and Russell exist in a desolate landscape of abandoned houses and vacant lots; all that is left is the entrepreneurial spirit of the hoodlum. When Frankie and Russell rob a Mafia card game, they understand that the game is rigged, that the house always wins, and will collect. Killing Them Softly takes place in the time between the beginning of the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, and Dominik makes clear how the economy functions as one big card game. To get what you want, you have to be “a fresh bastard” and go in shooting; it’s all a matter of who gets left holding the bag when it’s all about to go down. As the card players hand over the contents of their wallets to Frankie and Russell in Dominik’s 2012 film, George W. Bush appears on TV to deliver dire economic news.

As a result of “the irresponsible actions of some,” the game is up. The collapsing economy is played out in microcosm on the streets, it is the background noise for the violence that unfolds. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the harbinger of the “pain and consequences” that will result from this irresponsibility, a black-clad hitman who proclaims that “there’s a plague coming” that will sweep away those who cannot adjust to the new configuration of the system. Killing Them Softly charts how the loss of faith in the system was briefly ameliorated by the initial euphoria of the Obama campaign, but quick on its heels was the understanding that Americans were on their own, that “the American promise” came with an asterisk. It is this sinking feeling which Dominik captures in his 2012 film. Frankie comes to the realization that “we’re all on our own,” left to the mercies of people like Cogan, who is the avenging spirit of a faltering system. Cogan mocks Obama’s rhetoric of “one America,” scoffing “Oh yes, we’re all the same, we’re all equal,” and asserts that “America’s not a country; it’s just a business.” In Cogan’s worldview, your only obligation as an American is to get paid; he embodies the brutal logic that will steady a teetering capitalism. Cogan kills from a distance; he can’t stand the messiness of the close-up hit.

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The old political dynasties who symbolized the post-war order had been undone by their own hubris, and the 2008 election offered Americans two distinct pathways. The electorate reached out to Obama the unifier; they responded to the promise of inclusiveness and renewal. But they ended up jumping from the narrow ledge of “unyielding hope” into what had been unleashed on the other side of the campaign trail. Many who bought into brand Obama were equally animated by Donald Trump’s brash promise to “Make America Great Again”; the disillusionment with one idol’s cosmetic recalibration of the empire had necessitated the quest for another. To many establishment observers, Trump was a sudden excrescence who had burst from a previously hidden quarter of the American psyche. But it could be argued that he merely followed a playbook laid out by Republican strategist Steve Schmidt as he struggled to revive John McCain’s floundering presidential bid. As McCain’s senior campaign strategist, Schmidt may have been an unwitting Victor Frankenstein — who ironically became a vocal anti-Trump voice — but he set the tone for a new kind of political engagement. Jay Roach’s Game Change (2012) documents Schmidt’s ploy to do “something bold,” and the fallout from his win-at-all-costs gambit.

In Game Change, Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) initially postulates that the voters will choose a statesman over a celebrity, but Obama’s rise signals a seismic shift in how people think of politics; it is the point at which politics merges inextricably with show business. This new breed of political idol does not draw their power from the perception of strength or intelligence or accomplishment, but raw “star quality” and intangible magnetism. Their authority derives from their sheer visibility, an overpowering emptiness, into which is poured every hope and desire.  In ‘08, neither Obama or Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) had any political stature to speak of, but they shared a similar sense of destiny — Palin refers to her rise as “God’s plan” — and they understood what the times required. Obama’s status as a Harvard graduate and constitutional law professor mattered less in the eyes of the electorate than the lambent emotional current his public persona was able to generate. The turbulence of the crisis had skewed the political calculus; the idea of institutional competency had been fatally undermined, and a beleaguered people was reaching out to those who projected unassailable confidence and a bold vision.

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What had previously been the preserve of fringe sects like Lancaster’s in The Master and con artists like Daniels in Compliance was now finding a mainstream foothold via emerging technologies — ‘08 was the first election in which online strategies were instrumental in funding campaigns and marketing candidates. The ability to disrupt was in everybody’s hands now; we were all able to build our own profile and amass legions of followers. Schmidt loses control of his creation in Roach’s 2012 film, and understands what his boldness has set in motion. McCain (Ed Harris) speaks of “a dark side to American populism,” a revanchist spirit which Palin’s presence on the political big stage activates. The woman who Schmidt describes as “the party’s next Ronald Reagan” and “the best actress in American politics” changed the tenor of the political discourse, creating the space for a figure like Trump to emerge. Palin did come to define the course of the GOP, but not in a way that Schmidt could have anticipated when he made his “maverick choice.” Schmidt and McCain watch in horror as Washington’s carefully weaved myths are unpicked by this ruthless parvenu with dreams of adulation. Things begin to unspool when prophecy fails, when an idol’s human frailties become evident, when what Jackie Cogan describes as the “lovely words” that “arouse the rabble” fail to land like they once did.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.