Cannes 2012: Brad Pitt's 'Killing Them Softly': Anti-capitalist screed?
Most feature filmmakers shy away from acknowledging overt political messages in their films, hiding behind platitudes such as "I just wanted to tell the best story" or "I'd rather let others be the ones to interpret my work."
Not "Killing Them Softly" writer-director Andrew Dominik and his star-producer, Brad Pitt, who offered with frankness -- both in the film and at a Cannes Film Festival news conference that followed on Tuesday morning -- their unfavorable opinion of capitalism as recently practiced in the U.S.
Everything you need to know about Dominik's worldview came with a moment in the news conference in which the Australian said that in his experience America is largely about making money, and that that went double for Hollywood.
Or, as the film's touchstone piece of dialogue has it: "America isn't a country -- it's a business.”
Pitt and Dominik reunited after 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" for "Killing," which is set to be released commercially by the Weinstein Co. in September. Dominik said at the presser that if "Jesse James" was "a Leonard Cohen song," his new film is "a pop song."
Certainly that's true in terms of genre -- "Killing Them Softly" is a hit-man movie, albeit an arthouse one, and contains many of the schemes and stylized violence you might expect from a film with that label.
But the various criminal elements--including Pitt's Jackie Cogan, who likes to kill his marks from a distance, or "softly"--that try to rub each other out and protect their own interests are, well, often beside the point, their arcs followed slowly and circuitously. Instead, characters serve as symbols of, among other things, the hierarchy in a capitalist system. Dominik's larger notion is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people.
Lest there be any doubt about his intentions, the director set his film in 2008, against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the Obama-McCain election. He allows empty campaign promises -- including plenty from Obama -- to play underneath much of the action. The result is a commentary on the cruel Darwinian dynamic of the have-and-have-not crime world; indeed, though it was written before the Occupy movement took hold, it is arguably the first post-Occupy film -- or, perhaps, what the documentary "Inside Job" might look like if it was a fictional feature.
Pitt even said at the news conference that it was "criminal that there still haven't been any criminal repercussions" for the financial crisis, pretty much channeling the spirit of "Inside Job" director Charles Ferguson, who on the 2011 Oscar stage famously said that "no single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong."
The actor was more muted than Dominik, but he didn't totally hold his fire either. Asked about the decision to get behind this film, he said that at the time "we were at the apex of the home mortgage debacle and people were losing homes right and left," adding of this movie that "you believe you're watching a gangster film and it wasn't until the end when it coalesced [at the "America is not a country" volley, as well as a line about Thomas Jefferson that's best experienced firsthand] that you realized it was saying something about the larger world."
Dominik adapted the script from a 1974 novel titled "Cogan's Trade" that obviously lacks these contemporary political and economic elements. The fact that he's writing this as an outsider--an Aussie character is one of the few who gets away clean, which Dominik winkingly acknowledged was a comment on his home country's less rapacious form of capitalism--will only fuel the movie's critics, particularly on the right. On the other end of the spectrum, the film will no doubt go over big in Francois Hollande's France when it premieres Tuesday evening.
And then there's this peculiarity: "Killing Them Softly" is financed by Megan Ellison, who, as the very wealthy daughter of the very wealthy Larry Ellison, is of course a prime beneficiary of capitalism. Is this her attempt at repudiating her wealth or a deeper, more head-spinning contradiction? Dominik might say the latter -- but then, given his belief system, he would say that contradictions are nothing new in the American economic order.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Brad Pitt in "Killing Them Softly." Credit: The Weinstein Co.