The star wattage at the Cannes film festival increased notably Tuesday morning with the screening of Killing Them Softly starring Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer with a chess player’s intelligence, sent to clean up the mess after a mob card game is robbed.
Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 wiseguy novel, Cogan’s Trade, the movie is set in the fall of 2008, against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential elections and the collapse of the financial markets – it’s played as an unmistakable, if heavy-handed, allegory for capitalism run amok – politics and the mob mirror each other.
In many ways, Killing Them Softly is a bookend to an earlier film at Cannes, the Prohibition-era Lawless: both are stories of extreme violence and power corrupted that reflect America through a foreign director’s eyes. Lawless was directed by Australian John Hillcoat. Andrew Dominik, who directs Killing them Softly, is a New Zealander in his mid-40s with two films to his credit: the highly regarded The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also starring Pitt) and the Australia-set Chopper.
When Dominik walked into the press room Tuesday morning to meet the overflow crowd waiting for Pitt, there was a brief moment of confusion: With long blond hair, a suit jacket and open white shirt, he superficially resembled the Hollywood star, who is also a producer on the film.
Pitt entered a moment later with an exaggerated round-mouthed “Bonjour” to the crowd, before the panel sat down. First, Dominik explained why he took a 38-year-old gangster novel by Higgins (also the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and decided it was about Wall Street and the bailout:
“I originally enjoyed the book for its very simple plot and great character, but as I read it I realized it was about gambling and a crisis triggered by a lack of regulation, so it was something I couldn’t ignore.
“I always think the crime film is the most honest American genre,” he added, “because Americans, at least the ones I’ve met in Hollywood, are very concerned with money.”
Pitt, who is one of the film’s producers through Plan B Entertainment, said his company (which also produced The Tree of Life) wants to support independent directors such as Dominik, but “we’re also looking for stories about our time and who we are. We were at the apex of the mortgage and loans debacle and people losing their homes right and left.”
Perhaps because of our time and who we are, Pitt also dealt with the usual Brangelina inquisition: No, Angelina Jolie was not attending the festival – because she is preparing a movie; yes, he hopes to work with her again in a film; no, they have not set a date for their marriage. Someone else asked Pitt if, as a father, he was concerned about starring in violent films.
“Not in any way,” Pitt said. “Violence is an accepted part of the gangster movie. I’d have a much harder time playing a racist or something like that, rather than someone who would shoot a guy in the face.”
Dominik was surprised by questions about the film’s violence and mounted a high-brow defence, citing Bruno Bettelheim’s book on fairy tales – The Uses of Enchantment – and Slovenian culture theorist Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of The Three Stooges in terms of Freud’s model of the psyche.
After going all through the characters in the film as examples of elements of the psyche, he concluded: “The movie is basically teaching people to have good mental health, not to blindly seek pleasure or not to indulge in too much self-punishment.”
The response was met with laughter from the crowd, though Ray Liotta, who also stars in the film and had so far been silent, looked as though he might be inclined to perform some cathartic violence himself by this point.
He interjected: “I have no idea what they’re all talking about. I’m here to play pretend.”
For all that, Dominik acknowledged, when discussing the film’s soundtrack, that the “movie’s not real subtle, you know what I mean? Everything’s talking to you.”
In comparing it to his Jesse James movie, the director explained: “That was my Leonard Cohen song. This one’s my pop tune.”
Review: Even solid cast can’t satisfy overreaching plot
The late criminal-lawyer-turned-author George V. Higgins wrote reams of juicy wise-guy Boston vernacular, with enough plot twists to keep the characters busy. Writer-director Andrew Dominik ( The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has extracted some of the juicy language and plot of Higgins’s 1974 novel: a smooth clean-up man named Jackie Cogan must punish the idiots who robbed a high-stakes mob poker game.
Pitt is solid as a cocky pragmatist who prefers to kill victims “softly” from a distance rather than making them suffer. A colourful cast, with James Gandolfini resurrecting the spirit of Tony Soprano as a boozing, hooker-loving hit man who has lost his touch. As a genre movie, it’s conspicuously stylish: downbeat, sparely populated night-time locations (shot around New Orleans) contrast with moments of spasmodic violence and realistic bloodshed. The problem area is the film’s ambition to be something more than it is, with the robbery’s fallout treated as a metaphor for the 2008 Wall Street crash. Can’t these wise guys go anywhere without John McCain and Barack Obama on the television sets going on about America’s promise?
Note to readers This story has been modified to correct the following error: The movie Chopper was set in Australia, not New Zealand.