With Killing Them Softly opening nationwide today, it’ll be the first time in five years that the words “Directed by Andrew Dominik” have appeared on an American movie screen. That delay is because the Australian director’s last film, his U.S. debut The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, only made back half of its $30 million production budget with its worldwide grosses. Even worse, it netted only $3.9 million in the States. When I ask him if he sees Killing Them Softly as a natural follow-up to Jesse James, Dominik, 45, merely says, “I guess I don’t really think that way. I’m not in exact control of what I do. This was just the project I could get going.” The fact then that the Weinstein Company is opening Killing Them Softly in 2,424 theaters shows just how much confidence they have in the film—and Dominik’s vision.
A razor-sharp thriller starring Brad Pitt as a philosophically-minded hitman hired by a mid-level boss (Richard Jenkins) to hunt down the brainless twerps (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who robbed a mob-protected card game, Killing Them Softly is also a not-so-subtle commentary on the intersection of criminality and capitalism. Though the George V. Higgins novel it’s based on, Cogan’s Trade, came out in 1974, Dominik set his plot in October 2008, right in the middle of the worst financial collapse the United States had faced since the Great Depression. As characters throughout the film discuss the power plays they hope will land them big bucks, TV monitors show George W. Bush and Barack Obama discussing the turmoil that had engulfed the economy four years ago. The implication is clear: the 2008 bailout that saved Wall Street despite its bad behavior isn’t that different from the windfalls awaiting several characters in the film who’ve proven that crime sometimes does pay. Near the end of Killing Them Softly, Pitt’s Jackie Cogan even says, “America is not a country. It’s just a business.” That speaks very much to a theme Dominik previously developed in Jesse James: that there’s a disparity between the way we see ourselves, as individuals and as a country, and the way we really are.
But don’t think this is all just political sturm und drang. Killing Them Softly is actually a comedy. One of the hoods who robs a cardgame has a Cruella De Vil-style get-rich-quick scheme to steal dogs. And James Gandolfini plays the anti-Tony Soprano as a hitman associate of Cogan’s who, to say the least, has lost his killer instinct. “If the film took itself seriously, I don’t think it would be much fun,” Dominik says. “It’d be like preaching to the choir or something.”
We asked the director to expound upon some of his film’s ideas, and Dominik was more than willing to oblige.
Hollywood.com: How do you think the comedic tone of the film appealed to the actors?
Andrew Dominik: Well, Brad signed on thirty minutes after I pitched Killing Them Softly to him, because we had worked together before obviously. I think it was Jim [Gandolfini] who really got into the whole comedy aspect. Jim is always just going to make his guy real. I wanted him because he’s such an intensely sensitive guy, and there’s a real sensitivity to everything that he does. I could imagine Jim playing this really f***ed-up character and caring about him. That was my motive for getting him.
HW: Gandolfini’s character in the film is almost like the burntout end-state of Tony Soprano. A once formidable player now rendered useless. I thought there was a great mix of comedy and pathos in that character. He could have been a cartoon but you end up feeling really sorry for him. I did, anyway.
AD: Yeah, me too. There’s a real sensitivity inside the guy, even though he’s so f***ed up.
HW: Even though the two films are very different stylistically, I feel there is kind of connection between Killing Them Softly and Jesse James thematically.
AD: I think that Killing Them Softly is a little more one-sided in its view–my view–and a little more pop-y. I think Jesse James tries to look at its characters in a little more balanced way, as two sides of the same coin.
HW: It’s interesting you decided to bring a George Higgins novel to the screen, considering that only one of his novels had been adapted as a movie [1970’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which became a 1973 film starring Robert Mitchum], but especially that you decided to update it and set it in 2008. What inspired that choice?
AD: I got Cogan’s Trade because I had seen and loved The Friends of Eddie Coyle. So I looked Higgins up and saw that this guy was like a treasure trove. He’d written a whole lot of stories that had a real sense of authenticity about them, since he’d been a prosecutor. This book is a really simple crime and punishment story, even though it takes place entirely in the criminal world. But when it really caught fire for me was when I realized it’s a story about an economic crisis, and how it paralleled what was going on in the world at the time. And so updating it really seemed like the thing to do.
CB: There’s a lot of political commentary in this film, usually conveyed when we hear speeches from George W. Bush and Barack Obama talking about the financial collapse on the background. Were you trying to present this story as a microcosm for what was happening in the country at large?
AD: Yes, very much so. I think the attraction of crime movies is that they are little stories about capitalism. This is the genre in which the capitalist ideal is presented upfront. It’s the one genre in which it’s completely acceptable for characters to care about money, and maybe that’s the appeal of it. In some ways I find the people in crime films much more recognizable, much more like the people I meet in real life, than I do, say, characters in romantic comedies or other movies that on some level are concerned with reaffirming family values. Also, my experience of America, approaching it as an outsider, is just how much of life in this country is based around the dollar. This is a really, really capitalist country. And to me it seems there’s a similarity between the way criminals operate and the way everybody else does. I don’t know whether crime is dictating business or business is dictating crime.
CB: Do you feel that the criminal characters in your film are more honest, or at least less hypocritical, about capitalism than legitimate businessmen?
AD: Maybe. Maybe yes and maybe no. A guy like Obama has to persuade people to get what he wants. Obviously a power player in a criminal organization doesn’t have to persuade anyone. He can just do what he wants. So criminals don’t have the same problems that a president might. However, the president—or the government in general—have to engage in marketing in order to persuade people, engage in marketing to sell them on an idea. Obama’s great at singing a song of togetherness, but the American idea of freedom is really just the freedom to compete.
CB: In showing clips of both Bush and Obama, I think you’re one of the few to indicate that perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. As different as people would like to think they are, they represent the same system and are subject to its faults and failings as much as anybody, regardless of all the Hope and Change rhetoric.
AD: To me, regardless of who’s in office, the government is strangled by business. And the government’s priorities are dictated by business. I mean, why does America, even after healthcare reform, still not have free universal healthcare? I’m sure it has something to do with the insurance lobby.
CB: In fact, that’s one of the final lines of the film when Brad Pitt’s Jackie says “America’s not a country, it’s a business.” Was that you speaking through that character?
AD: I suppose so, but it’s only one half of the story. America used to be a fantastical place, you could get everything here. And everything was produced here. In some ways I think it’s more like cronyism than capitalism that’s brought the whole thing down. This is the country where the lightbulb was invented and the movie camera and the telephone, just about every f***ing thing you can imagine was invented in this melting pot. This was a place where so many ideas came together and innovation was encouraged. But it seems like the corporations have a stranglehold on everything now. America’s moved so much of its production and manufacturing offshore, it’s become a nation of middlemen.
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[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]