Ellen and Joe Martin are a simple couple.
They aren’t involved in shady business deals or extramarital affairs or corrupt legal systems or murder plots. They don’t believe the world owes them anything. They just want to live their lives together in peace. So, when Joe is killed (along with 20 other people) in a boating accident, Ellen doesn’t really care about the financial settlement. After all, Joe took really good care of her with his life insurance policy.
No, what really gets under Ellen’s skin is when she learns that the boating company can’t pay out the settlement deals because of a corrupt insurance policy. She starts digging and asking questions and eventually discovers the heart of the issue: a law firm called Mossack Fonseca.
“The wealth management you deserve” is the Panama firm’s motto, and Ellen’s deepening investigation soon teaches her all about wealth and money: “The idea of money. The necessity of money. The secret life of money.”
But most importantly, Ellen decides that this corruption has to stop. And in order to stop the laundering of money, you have to put the laundromat out of business.
Ellen’s motivation to bring down Mossack Fonseca isn’t financial in nature. True, money is what first led her to the unethical law firm. But the real reason she obsessively researches and digs into the company’s shady doings is because she wants justice for her husband. She just wants to know that these people are being held responsible for their transgressions.
Despite Joe’s brief appearance and early departure in the film, it is clear his marriage to Ellen was strong. He and Ellen were celebrating 40 years of marriage on the day he died, and he had been planning to give her a ruby necklace for the occasion (since the 40th anniversary is the “Ruby Anniversary”). After his death, Ellen attempts to honor his memory by purchasing a home overlooking the place where they first met.
In a film virtually devoid of anyone doing anything for the good of anyone other than themselves, there is one strong moral calling: “to put an end to massive, pervasive corruption.” Throughout the movie, we see one corrupt figure after another getting away with fraud, theft—even murder—with seemingly no repercussions. As we learn by the end of the film (which is inspired by true events), some of these powerful figures are eventually exposed and arrested for their plethora of crimes. The film also indirectly encourages viewers to challenge their elected representatives to reform problematic campaign finance and tax evasion laws.
Several times, characters question the biblical teaching of “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” Mr. Fonseca (while wearing an ornate cross pin on his lapel) describes how he believed this biblical statement from Jesus when he was young. After the priest who taught him about bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming liberty to the captive was violently murdered, Fonseca decided that maybe the meek just needed a better lawyer. He started working for the United Nations to save the world, but soon learned how hard that was, too. It required long hours for little pay, and he quickly decided that it would just be easier to save himself.
The film’s narrators (who chime in from time to time on the unfolding story) suggest that Ellen goes to church because she is stressed out that “the world is beyond her control.” She prays, thanking God for everything, but also (guiltily) asking Him when the meek are going to inherit the Earth. She says she knows she’s supposed to forgive the people taking advantage of her, but she still prays for justice.
The narrators casually discuss corruption in the legal system while standing in a church. They also mention that God passed a law against greed, but that it didn’t stop people from breaking it. A Catholic priest gives a sermon in Spanish on Isaiah 61:1. Joe’s funeral takes place in a church with a member of the clergy presiding. A close-up of a dollar bill shows the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.” The “so-called spiritual practice of Falun Gong” is discredited by the Chinese government, and members are seen meditating.
A scene from pornography involving two women and a man is shown on a TV screen.
A young woman relaxes in a pool wearing a bikini. Later, she and her much older boyfriend dance provocatively by the pool. (The boyfriend slaps his own backside; he’s wearing a robe, but it’s implied he isn’t wearing anything else.)
A couple kisses. A woman wakes her husband with kisses. Two men touch and flirt with a woman in a club. Two women lounge on a couch with a man. A woman describes a mai tai as a “Hawaiian fertility drug” and then goes on to say that her daughter was conceived under its influence. Another younger woman graphically describes how her sexual involvement with an older, married man began.
A woman wears an exceedingly tight dress and is later mocked behind her back. A girl’s mother questions the appropriateness of her dress, and her father later asks her to change outfits. A young woman wears short shorts. A primitive, remote tribe of humans are shirtless.
A man is revealed to secretly have two separate families. Another man, caught in an extramarital affair, attempts to bribe his daughter, treating it as a business transaction. He tries to defend himself, stating that it isn’t the first time and that he hasn’t been truthful to his wife, since he says it would only hurt her. When his daughter voices her anger, he rebukes her, stating, “This is adulthood. Welcome. It’s filled with disappointments and negotiations.”
In a fantasy sequence, Ellen imagines herself walking into the United Reinsurance Group of Nevis (the company under Mossack Fonseca’s corporate umbrella that failed to pay the life insurance premium after Joe died) with a shotgun, shooting it randomly and demanding to see Boncamper (the boss) while innocent employees scream and hide under their desks.
People are kidnapped by the police from a cult-like religious group in China. But things go from bad to worse for them when the abductees (who offer no resistance) are then killed for the purpose of harvesting their organs. (Heart and cornea extractions are seen onscreen.)
A ferry boat capsizes, drowning 21 people. People struggle and climb over one another, trying to remain above water. Later, bodies are seen floating in the water. A woman describes how she can still feel the hand of one of the victims, pulling her leg in an attempt to get to the surface for air. Another man describes how he has nightmares about corpses washing up on the beach near his house.
A man stumbles into the wrong room at a bar and finds a group of men with guns. Later, he and his companion (now dead) are buried by the gunmen.
A powerline falls to the ground after being knocked over by a truck and the live wires electrocute a woman, killing her. After being poisoned, a man tries to make his way to the bathroom, but collapses. Later, he is found dead in a puddle of his own vomit. One young woman savagely slaps another while screaming profanities.
A frightened man compares one of his clients to Pablo Escobar, implying that his client is much worse. We hear a reference to rape.
A man “helps” some primitive members of a remote tribe by using a lighter to start a fire for them. However, as the man walks away, the fire spirals out of control, catching a tree on fire in the background. A man wrecks his truck after texting while driving.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The film’s narrators are rarely seen without alcoholic beverages in their hands. Two men down shots in a bar. A man drinks several whiskey shots during a business meeting. People imbibe in a club. A young woman carries a box full of wine bottles. Two men shop for wine at a supermarket. A woman describes a weekend she spent drinking mai tais with her future husband.
Lines of cocaine are set up, but not used. A husband and wife discuss whether he has taken all of his medications.
Other Negative Elements
As Ellen begins to uncover the various misdeeds of Mossack Fonseca, the narrators describe the financial laws that allowed the firm to get away with it. Falsified documents, offshore accounts, fake companies, and clients ranging from drug lords and sex traffickers to gun runners and “destroyers of the planet” are all mentioned with nothing more than an exasperated “get in line” from the authorities investigating their cases.
Mossack and Fonseca defend their actions, saying, “We want to be fair, and yet, we want to win. We want to be righteous, but we want to get ahead.” One woman working for them attempts to correct her bosses’ behavior by stating, “I think it might be bad for us to do something like that.” However, the men scoff at her, and Mossack says, “Did we happen to mention we are in this for the money?”
A man is scolded by his secretary after shirking his duties to play solitaire at work. The same man later lies about who he is and where he works to an inquiring woman. A woman tells her grandkids how her husband took her to a concert on their first date using tickets stolen from his boss’ briefcase (which she tells them is bad after reconsidering). A father berates his son for not understanding how financial laws work.
After committing fraud to boost her husband’s political position, a woman tries to blackmail the man who helped them into divorcing his wife. When he refuses, she tries to buy favor with the police by killing him and accusing him of kidnapping, blackmail and corruption. (But the police wind up arresting her and her husband anyway.)
A woman vomits.
Based on the actual secrets revealed in the Panama Papers and explained in Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World, Netflix’s streaming movie The Laundromat pulls back the curtain on a complex system of laws that enables wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid taxes and evade consequences.
Mossack and Fonseca’s nonchalant treatment of innocent people in their financial schemes hits close to home for some of the characters who are victimized in the process. And although we see our heroine, Ellen (played by Meryl Streep), triumphant in the end, it’s clear that many corporations still benefit from laws that allow them to shelter billions, tax-free. Director Steven Soderbergh’s presentation of this story encourages viewers to take action, to pressure politicians to pay more attention to how these laws protect big business at the expense of regular Joes.
On a more philosophical level, The Laundromat illustrates how greed is the primary problem with our country’s financial system. However, this R-rated Netflix’s movie’s harsh language, sexual content and suggestions of violence may well deter many viewers from engaging with the thought-provoking questions it asks.