If writer/director Andrew Dominik were to categorize his last film as a piece of music, he would tell you it was a Leonard Cohen song. His latest, he has claimed… would be a “pop song”.
With his debut in 2000, Dominik introduced a little-known comedian named Eric Bana to the world, playing Australia’s celebrity inmate and best-selling author, Chopper Read. The film, Chopper, went on to make its star a marketable dramatic actor, and its director a bona fide auteur. In the years that followed, Dominik received representation by WME and would go on to state his intentions of adapting Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, write a script for an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me for Tom Cruise, and start development on an adaptation of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man… none of which ended up seeing the light of day.
2005 saw a deal between Warner Brothers and Virtual Studios that would finance six projects. Amongst them were moneymakers Poseidon, Blood Diamond, V for Vendetta and 300. Steven Soderbergh had the honor of helming the first flop of the bunch, George Clooney vehicle The Good German. The other went to Dominik, for his melancholic adaptation of Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Funding for the film was granted after the attachment of star Brad Pitt, a Chopper fan, who stipulated in his contract that the film’s title could not be altered by the studio. Perhaps due to the long title, or the public’s waning interest in the Western genre itself, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a financial disaster. Despite raves by critics and an acting roster that included the likes of (hold your breath folks) Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, Garret Dillahunt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, and the Ragin’ Cajun himself, James Carville, the film barely eked out half of its production costs upon the initial release. Its star and director have since admitted they are not one bit disappointed by the returns, with Dominik claiming it to be one of his favorite films he’s ever made, and both content that the film would age well, claiming it should withstand the test of time nicely, going so far as to compare it to a fine wine. Hollywood, however, was not so sentimental. Understandably (if not, most unfortunately), it would take Dominik three years to gain traction on another film.
Enter Cogan’s Trade. Written by George V. Higgins and published in 1974, the novel tells the story of the titular Jackie Cogan, a Boston mob enforcer investigating the robbery of a high-stakes poker game, and his pursuit of the culprits. Set against the then-current backdrop of recession and the one-two punch of both the energy and oil crises, Dominik saw the chance to bring the action into the present and stripped his interpretation of a definitive locale, which although shot in New Orleans, is intended more as a stand-in for “Anytown, USA”. Announced in late 2010, with a rumored cast that would tentatively include Jesse James stars Pitt, Rockwell and Affleck, alongside top-tier newcomers Bill Murray, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zoe Saldana, and Mark Ruffalo, the film would not start rolling until early 2011… However, when it did go to camera, the cast was almost unrecognizable when compared to initial speculations… While Pitt remained as Cogan, he was instead joined by former co-stars Shepard and Dillahunt, with the new collaborators instead being Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Max Casella, Scoot McNairy, Bella Heathcote, and Ben Mendelsohn.
Ben Mendelsohn, while not immediately recognizable to most moviegoers, had a minor role in The Dark Knight Rises and made his name a few years back with his award winning turn as Pope in the 2010 Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, which thrust him into the ranks of an astonishingly large group of Australian up-and-comers. Another of those up-and-comers, Bella Heathcote was seen recently in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows playing the dual role of Victoria Winters/Josette du Pres, she will also be featured in Sopranos creator David Chase’s debut feature Not Fade Away. Scoot McNairy, another 2010 discovery, is an American actor who made a name for himself playing the lead in that year’s independent sci-fi film Monsters, and was recently seen as one of the escaped hostages in Ben Affleck’s Oscar frontrunner Argo. Max Casella and James Gandolfini, no strangers to accounts of organized crime, were co-stars on the aforementioned Sopranos. Another mafia veteran, the ever-cool Ray Liotta, claimed at Cannes “one of the reasons I really wanted to do [Killing Them Softly] was the fact– usually I’m the one who’s beating people up so, it was nice”. Classic. Finally, we have Richard Jenkins, an Oscar nominee for The Visitor, he’s the standout in most everything he is cast in, including this year’s other Joss Whedon movie, Cabin in the Woods.
Another Oscar nominee, Mr. Pitt’s go-to producer, Dede Gardner, first teamed up with the superstar on Jesse James. Their continued collaboration led to last year’s Tree of Life, and she will next be seen in the credits for Voyage of Time and World War Z. More apparent, and perhaps more importantly, we have returning Jesse James veterans Patricia Norris (Oscar nominee, costume designer) and John Paul Horstmann (editor), whose influence on the look and tone of that film were incalculable. Behind the camera, Greig Fraser will be taking over cinematography duties from Jesse James’ ridiculously prolific and talented Roger Deakins, which I’d imagine would be intimidating to anyone in the field, as his work on it was essential to both the emotional and physical scope and earned him his second Oscar nomination that year alone (the other being for No Country for Old Men). Rest assured though, Mr. Fraser is a very skilled and deserving heir, as can be witnessed in his work on two of the more beautiful films in recent memory, Bright Star and Let Me In. He also recently shot Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker follow-up, next year’s Zero Dark Thirty.
If all those names and information didn’t do you in, I’d like to leave you with a few more tidbits… During the press conference at Cannes, Dominik stated he cast the film like a screwball comedy, and said that all the characters could be categorized as very recognizable types, and while the film is mostly a drama, it does have many spots of very dark comedy, some of which can be viewed in the trailer. It also has a bit of social commentary going on in it, as I alluded to earlier, but “you can enjoy it without ever really having to think about it and it can go in or not depending on how much attention the viewer is paying.” It’s really very interesting, and if you would like to brave some inherent spoilers, do check it out. No need to go too far, as it is posted below for any interested parties.
Alongside The Master, this was at the top of my art house must-sees for over a year, and I am super excited that its release is now so very close. In case you didn’t realize, I loved Jesse James and would easily grant it the rank of the “Best Western since Unforgiven”, a much debated and revered title in certain circles. Brad Pitt is one of our most versatile and talented actors and one of the last true movie stars we have here in America, in a very classic sense. Andrew Dominik is also, with only three films, shaping up to be one of the better directors working today and I am hoping his planned Marilyn Monroe film does end up getting the green light, because that really would be a thing of beauty.
Killing Them Softly is set for a November 30 release.
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