On Movies: Savagely cynical twist on gangster films

It's not every Hollywood guy who gets on the phone, obliged to promote his new work, who tells you right off the bat that he's hung over.

Andrew Dominik, writer and director of the Brad Pitt gangster pic Killing Them Softly, is, however, that guy.

"We had the premiere of the movie last night, and that's always nerve-wracking - you've got to have a couple of shots before you can do the red carpet," he explains, reached in New York the other morning. "And then [the premiere] went over well, people seemed to like it, so keeping on drinking just seemed like a good idea at the time."

Some of the characters in Killing Them Softly - a savage, funny, darkly cynical tale of the heist of a mob-protected card game and its bloody aftermath - engage in serious drinking, too. James Gandolfini, one of the actors Dominik hired to play both to type (watching him, it's impossible not to think of Tony Soprano) and against it, is a hit man brought into town for a job. Instead, his character just holes up in his hotel room with a hooker and a lot of booze.

Ray Liotta, whose crime filmography includes Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, plays the host of the card game, suspected by the big shots of actually engineering the robbery. (Watching Liotta, it's impossible not to think of Henry Hill.) Killing Them Softly, which also stars Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendolsohn, Sam Shepard and the voice of Barack Obama (we'll get to that in a minute), is based on the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade. Dominik's movie opened in theaters Friday.

"Once I decided to make it a little bit more of a protest song, or a political cartoon, it had to become less subtle, more cartoonish, a little bit more generic," Dominik says. "I almost tried to approach it like a screwball comedy from the 1940s in regards to casting. You know, you've got the fat guy, you've got the skinny guy, you've got the sweaty Australian guy, and you've got Tony Soprano and Henry Hill."

Killing Them Softly's protest song/political cartoon angle is where President Obama comes in. Where Higgins' novel - the third, after The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Di

gger's Game, to be built around a band of Boston bad guys - is set in the 1970s, Dominik moved the film up a few decades. Sound bites from Obama's inaugural campaign fill the air, and George W. Bush's nervous addresses to a country whose financial system has gone into cardiac arrest can be heard.

As Dominik wrote in a director's statement: "I originally imagined the film as a drama, but as I got into it, it struck me that this was a story of an economic crisis; a crisis in a criminal economy supported by gambling, and the problem was caused by a failure to regulate.

"In other words: a microcosm of the larger story unfolding in America at the time."

That's a pretty audacious conceptual shift, but Dominik, whose previous directing efforts are The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also with Pitt), and the Australian film Chopper (with Eric Bana), pulls it off.

"I hope so. I'm not sure if the world's really changed that much in the last four years," Dominik says. "I mean, it seems like we avoided an iceberg, but only just. . . . I think that America is an economic idea. Crime pictures are essentially stories of economics, of capitalism in its rawest form."

Dominik, born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, was sought out by Pitt when Chopper - a fierce and intense true-life story of an Aussie criminal - was released in 2000.

"Brad liked the film, and he's always keeping his eye on what's going on, in cinema, because of his production company, Plan B," Dominik says. "They really want to make movies that otherwise wouldn't get made, with directors like Terrence Malick and Steve McQueen . . . and I was one of the early beneficiaries of that desire on his part."

In both Assassination of Jesse James and Killing Them Softly, Pitt is a bad guy. In the former, he robs trains and banks; in the latter, he's a hit man. In both, he brings a quiet, soulful cool to the role. It isn't until his final tete a tete with Jenkins' character, a mob lawyer, in Killing Them Softly, that the audience gets to see how dark Jackie Cogan's worldview really is.

"I think Brad is pretty fearless about what he wants to do now," says Dominik, who hopes to work with the star again on Blonde. That's his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's fictional Marilyn Monroe memoir. Naomi Watts is attached to star.

There will most likely not be as many vicious beatings and murders in Blonde - the violence will be psychological, emotional.

But as for the bloodshed and the brutality in Killing Them Softly:

"There's a running gag in the movie that nobody wants to do these violent things, everyone's trying to subcontratct the killings out," Dominik says. "People are squeamish about even ordering hits . . . because violence is unpleasant for the perpetrator as well as the victim. So, I had to make certain sequences really appalling so that you would understand why they would go to those lengths to avoid having to carry it out. . . .

"But it's called Killing Them Softly," he adds. "So I wanted to have a murder in it that was beautiful, that was like a lullaby. And also something that undercuts some of the violence that has come before. . . . I wanted to confound you a little bit."

What if Lincoln had lived? We all know how Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's masterful portrait of the country's 16th president, ends. But what if Abraham Lincoln had been able to bring the Civil War to a close, gotten the 13th amendment - the abolition of slavery - passed, and hadn't been shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth?

"I can't imagine he would have lived another decade," says Spielberg, seated alongside his star, Daniel Day-Lewis, during a Skype interview a few weeks ago.

"There are all kinds of theories about Lincoln perhaps having some sort of wasting disease, possibly, or a growth deformity, but I don't think that's true," the director notes.

"He just used himself up in the service of the country," says Day-Lewis. "The assumption, commonly, is, well, yes, there's the president, but then around the president is this vast team of qualified people who essentially do most of the work.

"Absolutely not true. I imagine for most presidents, of this or any other country, their experience is often very, very lonely. And the weight of that responsibility that they carry is a tremendous burden, and you see the visible effects of that."

And you see Day-Lewis' Honest Abe carrying that burden, too. All the way to the Academy Awards.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.