When viewed from far in the future, sometimes it seems like one can identify a swath of art that is all thematically indebted to a huge event. The common example in movies is Godzilla and other kaiju films seeming like a way to process the cultural trauma of entire cities being murdered through the use of atomic weapons. Following 9/11, the United States had a decade of movies in which various famous US landmarks were taken over or exploded (War of the Worlds; The Sum of All Fears; 24; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; White House Down). And there was a long run in the late 70s and early 80s of films about the canard that the suburbs were a safe haven from the vices of the world (Halloween; Blue Velvet; A Nightmare on Elm Street; Pacific Heights; Straw Dogs).

The housing market crash of 2007 was a miserable time. The usurious leeches of our society, whose vast fortunes are predicated upon cultivating and maintaining lifelong credit debt in the working class, had been utilizing every gap and loophole in consumer protections to extend loans to people which they knew would not be tenable. As an example, according to court reports and reported by the New York Times, Wells Fargo created fake credit accounts in the names of customers, moved customer money without consent, and countless other violations (the lawsuit covers just a specific 14-year period and explicitly ignores similar wrongdoing before that period).

The worst part about these moneylenders committing such widespread devastation? The penalties were monetary in nature. So the companies liquidate some stock, some board members retire (with golden parachutes), and life moves on. The worst case is that the company goes under and is bought out by a different financial company. Wells Fargo’s penalties were $3 billion… but their profits for 2019 were $20 billion. So 14 years of fraud amounted to a penalty of 6.6% of their profits for one single year. Nice work if you can get it.

There were other factors that led to the 2007 recession beyond subprime lending, but that was the largest. A decent overview is on Wikipedia (as always, click through to the actual sources for specifics).

The people with the least suffered the most. There was a common theme in movies and series after the crash: don’t trust the banks, times are hard, etc. For obvious reasons, the Prohibition-era became a popular setting during this time too. Some examples of post-2007 recession movies and series:

    • Treme (2010–2013): New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
    • Only Lovers Left Alive (2013): Detroit after the housing market collapse
    • Killing Them Softly (2012): New Orleans after the 2007 recession
    • Lawless (2012): Virginia Moonshiners in the Great Depression
    • Magic Mike (2012): a stripper struggling to move into long-term business in Tampa
    • Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014): Atlantic City bootlegging
    • Public Enemies (2009): Chicagoland bank robbers during the Dust Bowl era


Killing Them Softly is the most up-front about the influence of the recession, with video footage of Obama’s campaign trail and election victory on televisions and radios throughout the film. Further, the characters in the film are not only contending with a corporatized world in which they are seen to hold little value (cash-only jobs, criminal backgrounds, New Orleans residents), but the corporate mindset has even infiltrated organized crime. Frankie (Ray Liotta) steals money from a poker night that he is supposed to protect and run, and gets off with only a beating. He is back to hosting the same poker nights after a short amount of time, his reputation somewhat damaged but his crime forgiven. Ron (Richard Jenkins) is a nervous liaison between the higher-ups in organized crime and the street-level figures like Jackie (Brad Pitt), but is still very much on the side of management. He verbally sympathizes with everything that Jackie says but tows the corporate line, refusing suggestions from Jackie, lowballing him on salary, and displaying unease when he hears grim specifics of the job.

Three low-level guys hatch a plan to rob the same poker game that Frankie is running, assuming that his higher-ups will blame Frankie for the theft since he had already done it before. Clever premise. Now we watch as mobster Jackie investigates the crime and seeks out those really at fault. I don’t know how often these essays motivate people to watch the featured film, but I do want to caution you before firing up Killing Them Softly. This is a brilliant crime film with some incredible performances, but it is also bitter and pessimistic and really kinda preachy about its themes. OK, mini-warning over.

My least favorite part of the movie is that the Velvet Underground needle drop is too on the nose. I think that it wastes brilliant performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy, sound editing, and some virtuosic camera flourishes. Literally any other track from VU & Nico would have been as thematically appropriate without being Captain Obvious. This is a very small complaint on a 30-second section of the movie, but I don’t know what else to criticize here. This is one of my favorite movies of the last decade.

Moving on. We had purchased a house in 2011, with rates that seemed impossible in the years prior. Our realtor made a point of overselling it by saying (each time that we saw him): “The interest rate for my first mortgage was 22 percent. You are getting in at around 4 percent. I never thought it could get that low and there’s no way it will stay there.” Given that the rates are still that low a decade later, it goes to show that realtors are about as good as Booth School economists at knowing shit from shinola when it comes to the economy. There is fear of another housing bubble: houses in my neighborhood are worth about double what they were before, and this is a working-class neighborhood, not some Whole Foods-adjacent cul-de-sac out in the suburbs. Rumors abound of massive investment companies snatching up every available property, houses selling within a week of listing, people bidding twenty percent over asking and still not winning. I don’t envy anyone trying to buy a house right now; the deck feels stacked against ya.

I didn’t go into this one planning to feel so hopeless. In hindsight, there’s really no other way it could have gone. Every generation lives in stressful times and this one is no different. The players may change but the grift stays the same.


Other 2012 candidates (Another year where real-life stuff overshadowed movies, in this case, a wedding): Magic Mike; Men in Black 3; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; The Dark Knight Rises; Skyfall; Lincoln; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I turn 40 in December. To commemorate the milestone, I’m writing 40 short biographical essays pertaining to a movie per year of my life.