“If you’ve got a character who’s a real bad guy, you kind of have to dress him all in black, right?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but Andrew Dominik throws it out there nonetheless. The Australian filmmaker is discussing the finer points of villainous couture, which essentially boils down to: a dangerous version of Johnny Cash’s uniform. When it’s proposed that the mode of underworld-chic sported by the protagonist of Dominik’s gritty thriller Killing Them Softly—greased-back hair, Mephistophelian goatee, a long leather coat that Nigel Tufnel would say could be none more black—makes the criminal character look like a human oil slick, the 45-year-old writer-director offers an alternative comparison. “A proper antihero should always look like an evil stick of black licorice,” he declares, a sandpaper-dry chuckle echoing over the phone line.
You might think the fact that said antihero is played by Brad Pitt would make this tough guy a bit more palatable than your usual tainted licorice stick. You would be wrong. No one is particularly clean or morally incorruptible in Dominik’s dingy adaptation of George V. Higgins’s 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade: not the dim-witted two-bit thugs (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) who decide to rip off an illegal floating poker game; not the game’s organizer (Ray Liotta), who engineered his own heist of the syndicate’s makeshift casino years before and is being set up as a patsy; not the milquetoast lawyer (Richard Jenkins) nor the outsourced, always soused hit man (James Gandolfini, brilliant) brought in to rectify the situation; and certainly not Pitt’s mob enforcer, an embodiment of the story’s cynical, dog-hires-other-dogs-to-kill-kennel’s-worth-of-mutts view of capitalism.
It was the book’s bleak outlook on America’s make-a-buck über alles mentality that attracted Dominik to the material, after he’d discovered the author via the movie version of Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle and began bingeing on the writer’s back catalog. Updating a Nixon-era parable of economic rot to 2008—just as Dubya was impotently decrying our country’s financial meltdown and Barack Obama was stumping about a Wall Street–Main Street divide—was a no-brainer; when the movie premiered at Cannes last May, Dominik went so far as to say Killing Them Softly was really a story of deregulation run amok disguised as a crime story.
“I mean, it is the story of an economic crisis when you think about it,” Dominik claims. “You’ve got this criminal economy that’s supported by gambling and somebody causes this huge failure of confidence. Then it happens a second time—because it never really got taken care of the first time. And now you have a system of checks and balances that’s completely collapsed due to a lack of regulation. So when you look at it that way…” He chuckles again. “The parallels were just too good to ignore. Crime movies are all about capitalism anyway, so this seemed like a good opportunity to make more of a self-conscious crime film.” There’s a pause on the line. “I’m sure some will accuse me of making a pretentious crime film as well. Some have already, actually.”
His cast, notably Gandolfini and Liotta, seemed more than happy to both feed off their past tough-guy work and simultaneously subvert it. (Liotta, in particular, is the recipient of a truly horrific ass-whipping. “Ray dealt out one of the most famous screen beatings of all time [in Goodfellas],” Dominik says. “So he welcomed the chance to experience a little cinematic karma.”) It was Pitt, however, who first embraced the notion of setting this among the rust-belt ruins of modern Anytown, USA, committing to the project before there was even a script. “Brad and I had a very intense experience on The Assassination of Jesse James,” the filmmaker says, referring to the 2007 revisionist Western the duo made. “We were like two soldiers bonding in a foxhole, and we wanted to do another project. Quite unexpectedly, the producers gave Killing the go-ahead after a single pitch meeting, and I thought, Ah, I’d better find a star quick. I figured Brad would be too busy to do it. Once I explained my idea for it, he signed on the next day.”
Pitt’s weary take on a man who’s just trying to do his job is the dark heart of the film, and it’s his final speech—“America is not a country, it’s a business…now fucking pay me!”—that offers Killing Them Softly’s single most caustic summation of our nation's dollar-sign mentality. That line isn’t in Higgins’s book, Dominik says. “It comes from my own experience of living in this country over the last eight years,” he admits. “I like dealing with extreme people in my movies, certainly. But you don’t need to be a criminal to realize that the notion of life in America being reduced to one transaction after another has never been more true than it is now.”
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear