- Associated Press - Thursday, May 24, 2012

CANNES, FRANCE (AP) - Brad Pitt is making the movie star thing look darn easy.

Since he last collaborated with Andrew Dominik, he’s starred in the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball.”

It’s been arguably the best stretch of his career, one vacillating between comedy and drama and defined not by summer blockbusters but by provocative director-oriented fare.

The bookends to the period are Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Killing Them Softly,” which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Things are going great even as Pitt insists that movie-making is not his top priority.

“Right now, I’m just attracted to being a dad,” said Pitt in an interview in a hotel penthouse in Cannes. “Film-wise, we get to do this thing and I feel very fortunate to get to do this. So I want to contribute to the art form. I think the films have to speak to our time and be authentic in their approach.”

“Killing Them Softly” is adapted from George V. Higgins‘ 1974 crime novel “Cogan's Trade.” It’s a stylized, ruthless noir with a host of fine performances _ by James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta _ in a brutally violent criminal wasteland.

Just as “Jesse James” used the western genre to explore a contemporary idea (celebrity culture), “Killing Them Softly” is really about capitalism. While gangsters and criminals maneuver in a grim world of backstabbing, reputation guarding and the perpetual pursuit of money, the background of the film is filled with speeches and billboards of former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Dominik has transplanted the story to 2008, adding the financial crisis as a backdrop for a cynical commentary on American greed.

“I immediately latched on to it because it was precisely the stories we were seeing on the news every day,” says Pitt. “Everyone was talking about restoring market confidence and meanwhile people were losing their homes left and right.”

Dominik, the New Zealand-born filmmaker of considerable visual flare, wrote the script in the midst of the financial crisis. He saw a connection between Wall Street’s power brokers and Higgins‘ hoods: both showed “the consequences of blindly chasing a buck.”

“Maybe crime films are about capitalism at its blunt, bottom end,” says the director. “It became a vehicle for some ideas.”

The quality of Pitt’s movies in recent years may not be a coincidence. He’s increasingly produced films through his production company, Plan B. The company was more nascent when it produced “Jesse James,” but has recently had noted success. Plan B helped produce last year’s Palm d’Or winner in Cannes, “The Tree of Life,” and the Oscar-nominated “Moneyball.”

“I don’t expect every year to go that way,” he says. “According to the laws of physics, things will balance out. But we’re clear in our mandate: Pushing stories and helping storytellers get the film to the screen. Ones that are tougher, we feel we can help out.”

Made with a production budget of $30 million, “Jesse James” failed to take in even $4 million at the box office, severely hampering Dominik’s prospects in Hollywood. Pitt says the director “took a hit” after the film.

“The paint is not celluloid, it’s money,” says Dominik, who made “Killing Them Softly” on a smaller budget. “It’s what the filmmaker works with.”

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