Cannes Check: Andrew Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly'

Posted by · 10:48 am · April 28th, 2012

With apologies for yesterday’s non-delivery.

The director: Andrew Dominik (Australian, 44 years old)

The talent: Ever heard of a guy called Brad Pitt? He’s going places, I tell you. The star has, of course, worked with Dominik before. In 2007, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” won Pitt the Best Actor prize at Venice and effectively started a new, more studious chapter in his career: two leading Oscar nominations and the career peak of 2011 later, it’ll be interesting to see what this reunion brings for him. (As he did on “Jesse James,” Pitt also takes a producer credit here.) The supporting cast, meanwhile, could hardly be tastier, blending trustily weathered character actors like Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, more ragged, unpredictable talents like Ray Liotta, Garret Dillahunt, a bristly relative newcomer in Scoot McNairy (“Monsters”) and, most excitingly of all, Dominik’s compatriot Ben Mendelsohn, who recently killed in “Animal Kingdom.” Not a lot of room for the ladies here, mind.

As with his previous two features, Dominik wrote the screenplay. The choice of cinematographer is of particular interest here given that, in collaboration with Roger Deakins, Dominik’s last feature was among the most acutely pictorial of the last few years: Deakins isn’t back, but the director’s compatriot Greig Fraser, best known for the bewitching, nature-bound visual poetry he conjured in “Bright Star,” is a suitably exciting substitute.

The pitch: The second American entry in this year’s Competition to be adapted from a modern semi-classic crime novel, the rather generically retitled “Killing Them Softly” was originally named for its source: “Cogan’s Trade,” a 1974 bestseller by lawyer-turned-author George V. Higgins. I’ve not read it myself, but Higgins is known for terse, hardboiled prose in an updated Dashiell Hammett vein, which could perhaps steer Dominik halfway between the rawly funny fury of his 2000 debut “Chopper” and the austere languor of “Jesse James.” Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer hired to eliminate internal offenders, who is called in to deal with the fallout of a high-stakes poker heist. Much cool staring, double-crossing and gunfire seem to be in order, though I expect Dominik might have more elegiac designs on this pulpy material. Either way, after the success of “Drive,” it’s nice to see the Cannes selectors taking further chances on US genre fare.

The pedigree: One of only four directors in Competition who has never taken a film to Cannes before, Dominik also has only two previous features behind him — making him one of the greener names in this lineup. That said, both “Chopper” and, on a larger scale, “Jesse James” have firm critical followings, while the latter competed at Venice in 2007, so the Australian’s no rube on this circuit.

The buzz: Inevitably high, given its leading man — the red-carpet hordes will congregate thickly for this one, but what of the film itself? Dominik’s last film had a famously difficult time in post-production, with the director and studio (Warner Bros.) at loggerheads over the length and tone of the ultimately defiantly uncommercial movie. With “Killing Me Softly” being handled by prestige merchants The Weinstein Company, never afraid to take a film into their own hands when required, it seems the editing process has been more quietly arduous: The Playlist quotes actor Garret Dillahunt as saying Dominik’s initial 150-minute cut had to be sheared by almost an hour. That’s neither here nor there, as is the film’s rather annoying title change — though if it turns out to disappoint, these will be retroactively flagged as symptoms. Dominik’s an odd, distinctive talent, and Pitt’s in the form of his life — there’s much to be hopeful for here.

The odds: Though perhaps not, to pick up on my last sentence, for the Palme. Jury president Nanni Moretti isn’t known for his predilection for tough American genre filmmaking, and the film would have to handily trounce superficially comparable competitors “Lawless” and “The Paperboy” to make a significant impact on the jury. Pitt’s in a career sweet spot at the moment, which could translate into Best Actor consideration if his performance is up to scratch, but Cannes awards will matter less to the Weinsteins than the sort of reviews on which a US awards campaign could be built. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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