Andrew Dominik
Eric Gaillard, Reuters

New Zealand writer-director Andrew Dominik got that rare privilege – especially given the twisted road of his last journey to the big screen – when filming Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins in his pulpy new underworld crime drama Killing Them Softly.

Final cut, for a director, is never to be taken lightly.

“Well, I had a financier that wouldn’t give it to me,” Dominik, 45, says over the phone from New York during a conversation with MSN continually sabotaged by technological dropout and failure on both ends of the line. “So, I flipped him.”

“But, you know,” he quickly adds, “it’s a $15-million Brad Pitt movie. My final cut was dependant on staying on budget and delivering a film of a certain length. So, it wasn’t a straight final cut. But if I stayed within certain parameters, I was good.”

That budget is thinner than a shoestring in today’s Hollywood, a bargain to assemble Pitt and a cast of Oscar nominees and Emmy winners together that is heavy on the black humour, doesn’t shy away from blood and speaks almost entirely in an otherworldly lexicon that shapes the map ahead as viewers pick up on the cues and clues. When Dominik and Pitt last worked together, on the very lengthy and ruminative The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, studio demands for edits and more re-edits put a film shot in Alberta, Manitoba and Utah on the slow train to release. The two-and-a-half-hour film finally emerged in late 2007, a good two years after it was shot, and only managed to bring back half its $30-million budget.

Television ads already slick up Pitt in his role as Jackie Cogan, the smartest operator in the mafia pack, who is called upon by a very strait-laced, almost naïve contact (Jenkins) to get out the gun and take care of some very messy business. Only, in Killing Them Softly, Jackie doesn’t have a taste for mess.

“Well, I think Jackie’s obviously an emotional person,” Dominik says. “He has to be, because he doesn’t want to hurt people. Or he wants to make it as easy as possible on the person. I suspect that he finds violence embarrassing, in a way. He’s always trying to sub-contract those jobs out.”

One of Jackie’s chosen sub-contractors is a veteran he remembers fondly, a bear of a man from the northeast named Mickey (Gandolfini). Only, when Mickey arrives for the job, he’s a shadow of his former self. Rather than get down to work, Mickey – looking exhausted to the point of near-death – holes up in his hotel room, awash in a steady stream of booze and prostitutes.

“I think Mickey – I love that character, because to me he’s the consequences of a life of crime,” Dominik says. “It’s not like jail and dead. It’s kind of that you’re alone and friendless and you can anesthetize yourself with sex and drugs, but you’re terrified to leave your hotel room. You know? He’s just like an absolute mess of everything. It’s like a horn of plenty, and he doesn’t even realize how unhappy he is. It’s just a really great way to show the consequences of that lifestyle. What it ultimately comes down to is loneliness.”

Unbeknownst, at first, to each other, the future of Jackie is tied to the fate of Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a low-level ex-con who gets an assignment as one of the gunmen robbing a poker game run by a beloved but crucially careless operator named Markie (Liotta). Frankie is so innocent, and so desiring of friendship, that he even vouches for his sweaty, vulgar, heroin-addicted loser of a friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to come in on the caper.

“I think Scoot is basically the hero of the story,” Dominik says of the actor, who recently starred in Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage caper Argo as the most reluctant of the houseguests hiding out in the safehouse of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. “You know? He’s pleasant. So, he’s got a very lot to sympathize with. I think it’s interesting that both his character and Brad’s character come to the same conclusion, that we’re alone in the world. But Frankie sees it as a bad thing and Brad doesn’t view it as a bad thing. It’s the way life is.”

Though there is no fixed address to be sighted through Killing Them Softly – this is a world of alleys, backrooms, modest houses and conversations under bridges – Dominik managed to keep on budget by finding the best location deal.

“The idea was Anytown, America,” Dominik says. “Anytown, USA. It’s not New York. It’s not Boston. Where it actually was was New Orleans. I was looking for economic collapse, you know? Third-world America. There’s a lot of it around, and they offer you a rebate – a tax credit – if you go and shoot in those states. It was basically a choice between Detroit and New Orleans, but Detroit was going to be minus-25 or something at that time of year, which is not a good idea if you’re shooting scenes of actors in cars. Their faces will freeze.”

The book Killing Them Softly is based on, a novel named Cogan’s Trade, is a 1974 fiction by George V. Higgins. The author, who died in 1999, is most notable to now for having his 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle turned into one of the best and most enduring crime and character films of the American 1970s, when Robert Mitchum stepped up to the title role in 1972.

“You know, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was how I got to it,” Dominik says of this new film. “I’d never seen it. I saw it on TV, I don’t know, probably about six months before we started the picture. I looked up Higgins as a result of that and saw that he was a public prosecutor and had written 20 other novels. I thought, ‘There’s got to be a treasure trove.’ You know? And I sought them from second-hand bookstores, and this one was the second one that came in.

“Did it hang over us? I don’t know. I mean, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a very grim, very authentic and very specific type of picture. This thing is much more sort of, I guess, poppy-cartoonish, because, you know, to some extent it’s played into a political cartoon.”