The Reel Breakdown

‘Killing Them Softly’ writer-director Andrew Dominik on Brad Pitt, President Obama, and the dirty job of killing for hire

Photo: The Weinstein Co

With "Killing Them Softly," writer-director Andrew Dominik reunites with Brad Pitt, the star of his ambitious 2007 Western, "The Killing of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a box office failure with a running time as long as its title. Dominik's first film, the 2000 Australian crime biopic "Chopper," launched Eric Bana's Hollywood career. Now the New Zealand-born director is back with a taut crime drama based on the George V. Higgins novel "Cogan's Trade." Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer assigned to clean up after a pair of bumbling amateurs (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) rob a Mafia-protected card game and sign their own death warrant in poker chips. Dominik opens up on Pitt, politics, and killing:

[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Killing Them Softly']

Thelma Adams: The late author George V. Higgins is having a renaissance. His books tend to be dialogue-driven, male, low-rent crime stories. While in many ways the adaptation remains faithful to the book's spirit, you transplant the story from Massachusetts in the '70s to Louisiana in 2008. The overlay of contemporary politics and the 2008 election battle between Barack Obama and John McCain gives rise to Cogan looking at Obama on TV in a bar and saying, "This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business." Why this particular radical departure?

Andrew Dominik: When I read "Cogan's Trade," it seemed like everyone had an aria but Jackie. Obviously, I had to come up with some aria for him. The book was the story of an economic crisis. I was in the middle of the global one at the time, and I saw a way to fit the two together. The story of the poker-game heist is about an economy supported by gambling and its collapse. When the underworld deals with it, they have to deal with the problem and with the perception of the problem. They have to get rid of the guys who collapsed the economy -- it's a political situation that was exactly what happened in the financial meltdown of 2008. Crime movies are basically about capitalism because it's the genre where everybody is making a buck. Aren't they about the American dream, getting rich quick, which is the promise of America?

TA: In the movie, you show two very similar billboards of McCain and Obama, and it seems that the movie is equating the two, that they are two sides of the same coin. Was that your intent?

AD: I think so. In America, to get elected costs money, and money comes from interested parties. You're always going to have to deal with people who put money in your pocket.

Photo: The Weinstein Co.TA: Many American critics, like that of the New York Times, have had trouble digesting the politics in the year of another contentious election. To quote A.O. Scott: "There is one desperate, misguided attempt to drag the story toward some kind of contemporary relevance. Even though the cars, the attitudes and the overall griminess of the production design evoke a bygone era, 'Killing Them Softly' unfolds at a specific moment in the recent past, namely the autumn of 2008, when the American financial system spun into crisis in the climactic weeks of the presidential campaign. … It's a clumsy device, a feint toward significance that nothing else in the movie earns."

AD: I see the movie as a political cartoon. It's not a subtle film. It's like a protest song. And a lot of people haven't liked that and have seen it as ham-fisted. But at the time, when you're suffering financial insecurity, it's the only thing. We were on the brink of the ATM not dispensing cash. Every time you listened to the car radio, people were arguing about the bailout. If you were going to set this story at any time, that seems like the ideal. The idea was to play it for laughs and make it universal.

TA: It may be that because you're originally from New Zealand, you approach American politics and Obama with an outsider's perspective.

AD: I don't see it as being about Obama per se. What Jackie's objecting to is the idea that Obama is calling for us all to be in it together. Jackie is saying that's never going to happen. That's not the way the country is built. Obama has a desire to see the country as a community.

TA: Would you call Jackie and his associates -- played by James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta -- as a microcosm rather than a community?

AD: No. It has its rules. Everyone's out for themselves. Jackie's idea of killing them softly is because Jackie doesn't want to get his hands dirty.

TA: To quote Jackie discussing his profession and his victims: "They cry, they plead, they beg … they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill 'em softly. From a distance."

AD: These guys are professionals. They pay you big bucks to kill people because it's really unpleasant. It's interesting to look at violence from the point of view those people who have to do it.

TA: It's a dirty job.

AD: It's a dirty job and no one wants to do it. People subcontract it out to this Irish guy, Jackie, who in turn is trying to subcontract it out to somebody else, which seems very American to me.

TA: Speaking of American, this is the second movie you've made starring Brad Pitt -- and you've only made three movies. Who is more American than Brad?

AD: Brad is great. He's really fun to work with as an actor because he likes to play. You can get him to use his imagination and attack the part from a whole lot of different angles. When you're doing a scene, I've always got an idea of what it's about, but how you get there -- that you discover on the day of shooting to get real things to occur. He's up for that. We have a great time.

TA: He was great in the scene where Jackie has cornered Scoot McNairy's Frankie, one of the poker-game robbers, at a local watering hole and plays the guy like a cat with a mouse.

AD: Brad always surprises me in every scene, but I was really impressed by how gentle he was with Scoot in the bar. He's horse-whispering him. He hits him with a carrot and a stick, creates that feeling of ambiguity that's very quiet. I'm not sure that's how I really saw that scene, but it was incredibly exciting to shoot Brad taking it in a different direction.

TA: Will you and Brad work together again?

AD: We're going to make this movie about Marilyn Monroe.

TA: That's the one based on Joyce Carol Oates's novel "Blonde," that Brad's company Plan B is set to produce. Who would Brad play?

AD: He'd play a man. We'll find out. At the moment, we're dealing with a few practical problems. The screenplay has been written. It feels natural to work with Brad. I've made three movies, and I've worked with him twice. We became very close through the whole "Jesse James" situation because it was difficult. It wasn't what the studio was expecting. We had to fight for it. We were like a couple of soldiers in a foxhole. When you find people that you trust, you want to keep going with them if you can.

TA: And what is he like in that foxhole?

AD: Brad's really a wonderful, generous guy. It's a natural thing. That was why he had such fun playing this character. He gets to play a prick. It's like a holiday for him. With actors, you either have to cast them in parts that are very close to who they are, or are the complete opposite.

TA: "Killing Them Softly," like Higgins's novel "Cogan's Trade," is set in a male, male, male, male world -- what drew you to that territory?

AD: The movie deals with masculinity itself, the existential confusion. All these characters are talking about women all the time. They're confused by them, they've broken their hearts, but it interests me that we would never actually see one. It's kind of like George Cukor's "The Women," where it's actually all about the men, but you never see one.

See the trailer for 'Killing Them Softly':

'Killing Them Softly' Theatrical Trailer