"We were going to have this trash bag kind of landscape—the idea of America as Chernobyl," says director Andrew Dominik, speaking to the opening scene of his latest film, Killing Them Softly, in which a palpable sense of desperation pervades the air as the forgotten fantasy of the American Dream blows by through the desolate landscape. Set in a modern world where the notion of hope is lost and the price of survival means taking what you want for yourself at any cost, Dominik’s follow-up to 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is nothing short of cinematic dynamite. Based on the 1976 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film follows Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt), who is hired to knock off two low-life amateur criminals (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who manage to successfully hold-up a poker game controlled by the mob.
Stripping the novel of it’s original political climate, Dominik sets the film at the height of the 2008 election— the world on the precipice of financial collapse. With a gritty testosterone-heavy attitude and dramatic authenticity akin to classic 1970s crime dramas of desperation, Killing Them Softly gives a desolate view of the world today through the eyes of its pessimistic and morally-wavering characters. But for all its realism and nerve, Dominik also favors a very choreographed execution to the film—elevating the story to more of an intelligent political cartoon than strictly a polemic. And for a film where the failures of society loom like a dark mask over their lives, each scene is filled with an incredible amount of force and energy that it’s difficult to not find yourself brimming with a frenetic excitement while watching. Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Sam Shepard round out the hardhitting cast, each delivering unique performances that bind this story together like an examination of the male psyche as well as the societal factors that inform it.
Earlier this week we sat down with Dominik to discuss the cartoon-like aspects of the film, the dialogue-heavy script, and his cast of destroyed men.
So how did you come across Cogan’s Trade? Did you know right away that it was something you wanted to adapt?
It was just kind of luck. I discovered it from The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Just reading it and realizing that he was a guy who had a real authentic kind of voice; this guy, George Higgins, was the author of the book and also a public prosecutor in Boston so obviously he knew these people he as writing about. But it’s kind of ironic because a lot of the authenticity fell away when the idea of contrasting the economic collapse in the story with the larger economic collapse. The movie became a little more cartoonish from then on. But that was the original thing.
Were you reading it around 2008 or looking back in retrospect?
Shortly after. Everything was going on at once. I needed money. The economy was collapsing. I was reading a story about like a collapsing criminal economy and it was all tied up together.
The film felt so exciting just from the opening. It was a very visceral, harsh opening that I felt really set the tone thematically. Did you have any initial idea about how you wanted to open the film?
Yeah. I mean, we were going to have this trash bag kind of landscape, the idea of America as Chernobyl. I mean the speech wasn’t initially there and it was just something that happened. We had to set up everything that was going to play out in the movie at the beginning. And then the idea of contrasting Obama’s sort of togetherness speech with a bunch of noise in a sort of garbage landscape seemed like the thing to do.
A lot of the film like the opening and the initial poker hold-up are very gritty and raw, aesthetically, but then there are moments like the heroin scene or the slow-motion sections where everything’s very stylized. Did you have any idea in terms of style how you wanted the film to play out?
It’s a bit of a hodgepodge. I mean with the drug scene, that just seemed like the most interesting way to do it. The idea that one guy is trying to get life-saving information out of a guy whose asleep just seemed funny. There were two things I was looking at. One was like 1940s pictures, you know, like screwball comedies where they basically just give one person a shot and a master, really simple, and just let it play out. I knew if the performances weren’t there, the movie was just not going to work so why try and dress it up? But then you have to have a certain amount of cinema when it’s appropriate. So it was just what each scene seemed to demand. And the fact that it became less specific, less of like a Boston crime drama and more of a political cartoon, allowed it to be a little bit more, you know, show-offy at times. It’s usually done for a reason. The movie’s called “Killing Them Softly” and the idea of having a soft or beautiful lullaby-like killing seemed like a good idea. I also felt like I needed to undercut the ugliness of what we’d seen before to set you up for the ugliness that was coming.
There was a very overt running political commentary running throughout the film—on the TVs, radio, in the dialogue, etc—it worked to parallel these worlds but were you afraid at all that it would feel a little heavy handed?
Well people have complained about that and I’m not sure that people want their politics and crime movies mixed together. But it just seemed like too good to ignore. And they say it’s heavy-handed and I wonder if maybe it is. But I remember at the time that all that stuff was going down in 2008, it certainly felt like anytime you turn on the TV or the radio, “we’re about to go down the toilet” was being screamed at you from every direction. There was also a certain marketing of America that was taking place at the same time. I liked it.
The film felt like it could have even been a stage play. There was a very Mamet-esque sense of dialogue between the characters. Especially the scenes between Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini which were some of the most incredible scenes in the film.
It actually was done as a stage play. I found this out afterwards, after e shot the movie. Somebody turned it into a stage play years ago. I mean that was the whole idea. It was really interesting, they say movies shouldn’t be photographs of people talking, and that’s kind of what it is. I mean the advantage that it’s all just dialogue means it’s cheap—you shoot it, it doesn’t have a whole lot of set pieces and stuff like that. But that was kind of the attraction because then you can just get a whole lot of really good actors and go and make a movie and it’s only going to cost you so much. They say “action is character” but it’s always just sitting and talking to people. I like to spend time with people. And this book was all these monologues and attitudes, you really got a sense of just people with these little bits of plot tucked incidentally in the corner. I wanted the film to have that feeling.
It felt like a small character study of a lot of people.
Yeah, that’s what it is. And how they’re all confused. These people are living a lifestyle, but how do they feel about it? Are they examining their lives? And they’re not really. I mean, Gandolfini’s desperately unhappy and he doesn’t even know it. So all that stuff it pretty attractive to me.
It was interesting to see Scoot’s character and Brad’s character together, how Scoot was just starting in this crime world and still had a conscious and remorse, where as Brad’s character was beyond that point where this is his job and you have to do what you have to do to survive.
It’s interesting that both characters come to the same conclusion, which is that they’re alone in the world, Scoot sees it as a negative and Brad, I won’t say he sees it as a positive, but he’s not crying about it.
So how did you go about casting? Did you know who you wanted when you were writing?
I had a basic theory, which was to type cast it like cartoon casting where all the characters are instantly recognizable as types to the audience. You’ve got the fat guy, the goofy looking skinny guy, the sweaty Australian guy, and the the tough guys. So then you hire the tough guy actors but within that, you’re not going to get a person who has greater sensitivity about them than Gandolfini to play that part. You just kind of feel like there’s an essential humanity to him and I needed someone like that for Mickey. So some of them were just really easy no-brainers. And then Scoot was just a tape, I was a sent a tape of this guy and he was just great and it was just like, who is that? I don’t care who he is, I don’t know who he is, he’s Frankie, let’s get him. Ben Mendelhson is someone I’ve known since we were teenagers and he’s very well-known in Australia and I knew that that character was something he could do with his one arm tied behind his back.
Scoot was probably my favorite performance in the film.
Brad did his first week with Richard Jenkins and he said it was like working with Peter Sellers, and then he did his next week with Jim and he said it was like working with Brando, and then the next week was with Scoot and he said it was like working with Monty Cliff—but after the accident.
Your films are very male-driven films and devoid of women yet men always have these complicated relationships with women. Do you want to make these male-centric films or are women just territory you haven’t explored yet?
I haven’t been able to yet. The movie I really want to do next is called Blonde and it’s about Marilyn Monroe, so it’ll be a chance to make a movie that has a female character central to it. Obviously it’s easier to make films about men because I am one. And they’re all men that are very confused about masculinity. That’s one of the things I really like about the story, it seems to be about destroyed men—the devastated American males or something, they’ve all lost their vitality somehow. But just in terms of all their relationships with women, all of them are real confused about women. It will be interesting for me to make a film where there’s no stabbings or shootings.