Brad Pitt in "Killing Them Softly." (Weinstein Co. )
With its stylized violence and unambiguous politics, "Killing Them Softly" has divided critics since it debuted at Cannes this year. That polarization probably will continue this weekend among audiences who, wooed by slick TV spots, are expecting a polished Brad Pitt action thriller instead of an off-kilter art film.
The filmmakers say they’re experiencing that surprise firsthand, but say they believe that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
"You have the happy reaction and the unhappy reaction," director Andrew Dominik tells The Times of the filmgoers who’ve commented to him so far. "There are the people who think they’re going to see a straight-ahead thriller and don’t like all this other [stuff], and then you have the people who see it and they’re happy there’s more depth."
Dominik, who previously collaborated with Pitt on the commercial disappointment “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” offers a certain degree of candor in talking about their new film, which centers on a mid-level operator in a hierarchy of hit men who's trying to get by just like the rest of us.
Dominik says he understands why elements like dense dialogue and arty visuals might mystify some filmgoers. “It does ask things of the audience. I wouldn’t be happy with myself if it didn’t,” he said.
But he also seemed a little perplexed by the critical reaction, which included New York Times critic A.O. Scott saying the movie “ is sapped of vitality by its own self-conscious, curatorial fastidiousness.”
“This is embarrassing to admit, but I was trying to make a more commercially accessible movie,” said Dominik, who in addition to the unconventional Western "Jesse James" has directed "Chopper," a well-regarded indie that was little-seen in this country.
(It also remains to be answered how this movie’s overt politics, frequently through the use of 2008 campaign speeches, will land with an audience; in the interview, the Aussie director said that he believed "Killing's" message is that “America is an economic idea, and it’s rotting the place.”)
Harvey Weinstein has a reputation for taking a movie that struggled at a festival and working with a director to recut; he famously and effectively did that with "Inglourious Basterds" three years ago.
But Dominik says the version audiences saw at Cannes has not been altered. "We had some backing-and-forthing. Some things I thought he was spot-on and others I didn’t agree. But it remains unchanged." (The director said that he had final cut as long as the movie met budgetary and other formal requirements.)
Originally titled “Cogan’s Trade” per its George V. Higgins source material, “Killing” was made for about $15 million, financed primarily by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and distributed domestically by Weinstein Co. and a number of studios abroad.
Dede Gardner, Pitt’s producing partner at and a producer on the film, said she hoped foreign distributors were happy with the final product despite it playing very differently from your typical Hollywood export.
“If anyone is surprised, it’s not through any deception on our part. We were really upfront from the beginning that this was something unique,” she said. “If you read the script and saw the devotion to dialogue you would have concluded it was going to try to reach something more and different.” She called the movie “smart and ferocious and violent” and noted that “there’s not a gratuitous frame in the film.”
Still, tracking has not been strong, and box-office pundits expect the film to gross less than $10 million this weekend. That would mean it could end up as the second-lowest grosser of Pitt’s career since he became a star nearly 20 years ago, just ahead of, well, “Jesse James.”
Dominik has an uncommonly honest attitude on that subject. "I just want to make a movie that’s not a bomb at this point,” he said.