Softly Does It (Interview with Andrew Dominik)
This article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 14th October 2012
For many, Killing Them Softly is “the new Brad Pitt movie”, but for others it’s the eagerly-anticipated follow-up by director Andrew Dominik to 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s the latter we should be excited about.
Wellington-born Dominik (who grew up in Australia from the age of two and considers himself an Aussie) shot to fame with his very first film Chopper, directing Eric Bana as the legendary Australian criminal. Suddenly everyone wanted to work with him. “It was just a bit like a fantasyland” says Dominik of the explosion of interest, “the kind of people that would reach out to you… it didn’t really seem that real, and to be honest it was a little scary because you are walking into a culture that you don’t understand – it’s sort of codified and mysterious”.
It must have been a young filmmaker’s dream to be wooed by Brad Pitt, whose involvement in the Jesse James project helped break Dominik into the American market. “I was really lucky that I did [Jesse James] with Brad because he’s an 800 pound gorilla and he could clear the brush for me, as it were,” he agrees.
That film’s languid pace, cinematographic beauty and superb performances from a cast including Casey Affleck and Jeremy Renner are breathtaking. Dominik said at the time “[Brad] can be the best friend you have but when we fought it was bloody”. The relationship clearly survived as Pitt stars in Dominik’s third feature, once again playing the gentle-mannered yet deadly lead among a band of crooks. When asked whether any blood was shed in the creation of this latest collaboration, Dominik makes it clear that feeling passionate about a project is all in the film’s best interest. “[Brad] is not just an actor, he’s a producer so he has a creative stake in the picture too, and when it means a lot to both of you, things can get heated but it’s part of the process.” Dominik rejects the idea of taking “possessory credit” of a movie, saying everyone wins when good ideas flow.
Despite this, Dominik could be seen to exercise more control than many filmmakers, as he co-writes the script for his films and at points seems to suffer a little from the auteur’s love of the sound of his own “voice” – scene after scene in Softly shows gangsters discussing, pleading, telling off-colour anecdotes or just plain whining. It’s seeing heavyweights such as James Gandolfini, a hired gun on the cusp of yet another divorce, griping about his women troubles that makes such scenes simultaneously amusing and unsettling.
In casting criminal icons such as Tony Soprano and Goodfellas’ Henry Hill(Ray Liotta), Dominik says he wanted to evoke the 1940s studio pictures where actors played to type film after film, the audience thus making an automatic association with the baggage that that actor brings with his character. The slight twist here is that these big men don’t turn out quite as you’d expect.
Interestingly, there are no women in the film at all, barring a two-line interchange between a sassy hooker and the deeply misogynistic Gandolfini. A glaring omission, but surely not an oversight? Dominik explains his motivation for the female-free zone. “All of [the men] seem to be, except for Brad, in some way destroyed by females. I think the film deals with kind of a failure of masculinity.” He cites the 1939 George Cukor classic The Women as his inspiration in reverse. “I wanted to make a movie completely without women where [the men] are just talking about women all the time… I really wanted it to be like a planet of men.”
Killing Them Softly seems to derive its look and content from many of the best “planet of men” movies of recent years, including Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs. Dominik concedes he grew up with all those films and “they’ve kind of been in my DNA”. However, it was a 1968 documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen in the mid-west that informed the style of this film. “It’s winter, it’s really grim and nobody is buying Bibles and everyone is very desperate. I wanted to have that sort of feeling of men at work and it’s not glamorous and they really don’t like what they’re doing.”
For a crime movie, Softly is indeed distinctly bleak. Based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade”, Dominik’s take is “a story of an economic crisis”. The film updates the source story to 2008, when Obama was on the cusp of election in the US and the economy was on its devastating downturn. “I wanted to make a film about economics and capitalism”, he says “and the crime film was the one genre where all the characters just care about money and it’s completely acceptable for them to do so”. When Liotta’s character commits a crime against his colleagues, the bosses fail to make an example of him. “Now they are going to have to deal with it again and when they clean it up they not only have to deal with the problem, they have to deal with the perception of the problem”. To Dominik, this seemed like a much simpler version of what was happening in America at the time.
The film is bloody, the violence extremely loud and visceral (in defence, the director says “violence is supposed to be upsetting so you harness all your material in such a way as to upset the viewer as much as possible”). Let the viewer beware. But it’s also funny and sad, with pathetic, wannabe hoodlums Scoot McNairy (Monsters) and Animal Kingdom’s brilliant Ben Mendelsohn playing small timers who get in too deep with the big guys.
With only his third film, Killing Them Softly affirms Dominik as a talented filmmaker who takes his time between projects but so far never fails to deliver.