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Revisiting: The work of Andrew Dominik

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Andrew Dominik has directed some of the most under-the-radar films of the last 20 years. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries, it may be that everything he has helmed is worth another look - to date he has only made three films and one documentary. Perhaps more importantly, Dominik’s relatively small output deserves recognition for the social commentary from which it is built. The themes throughout his films seem to be shouting louder as the world of politics, celebrity and gender shift around us.

His first offering as a director was an ultra-violent ode to the infamous Australian prison inmate Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. Few would argue that he came out swinging; Chopper is a right hook of a film with a brutal, psychopathic male at its centre. Dominik has a knack for bringing career-best performances out of his actors and this was no exception. Eric Bana excelled as Read because, although the film has a strange, dreamlike feel to it, he managed to bring a very human edge to the notorious criminal.

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In one darkly comic and savagely violent scene, Read is stabbed by prison inmates who have resorted to killing him as a way of halting his unpredictably dangerous behaviour. It takes Read a while to realise what has happened and instead of reacting - as we fully expect him to - he hugs and comforts the man who has just repeatedly punctured his abdomen with a nasty looking homemade shiv. Dominik neatly taps into our voyeuristic fascination with violence and celebrity early on, and it’s a theme he returns to with weightier intent in his second feature.

It took cinema audiences and critics a period of time to begin to fully appreciate  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Now regarded as an underrated naughties classic, the Epic Western initially struggled at the box office, regardless of Brad Pitt’s name being attached. Also, it didn’t help that there was allegedly conflict during the editing phase of the film, with Warner Brothers pushing for snappier action and Dominik and Pitt holding out for a longer, more meditative work. Thank goodness, then, that of the dozens of cuts that were reportedly made, the theatrical version ended up being a film that was given the time and space to work through its central themes.

Casey Affleck (who showcases a superb talent that would eventually lead to the best actor Oscar for Manchester By The Sea) was perfectly chosen to play Robert Ford - the weak, pitiful loner who idolises Pitt’s Jesse James. And it is his performance that lingers after watching the film: his infatuation for James etched on his face, his body language giving away the insecurities he is trying to hide, his obvious self-doubt after engaging in shallow, quickly forgotten conversations. He brings an obsessive, childlike giddiness to the role that makes one think of Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley Jr. Pitt matches Affleck as he shows a subtle disdain that eats away at the increasingly desperate Ford. The strong acting performances, heightened by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score and the beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins (who now boasts an astounding canon of work) all bind to create something that is persistent and powerful in its modern messages.

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It is through ‘spoiling’ the film’s ending that Dominik does exactly what is needed to fully appreciate and explore the relationships in the narrative: releases the audience to get to the heart of the story. With James’ inevitable death out the way, we begin to look at the intensity between the two lead actors. Needless to say, today’s fickle, digital world that idolises celebrities can’t help but be compared. We see Ford staring at James through doorways, during conversations and in a bath - only a phone screen away from how millions now glare at their online icons. His pathetic mimicry of James magnifies his deep insecurities (he chokes on an identical cigar), leaving James to comment, ‘can’t figure it out, you wanna be like me or you wanna be me?’

The film leaves us mindful of how surface level and toxic these relationships can be. Why are we so taken by people who we know aren’t all they seem? How does the myth of someone we idolise change and affect the way we act? Toward the climax of the film, we hear Ford state knowingly that, for all his adoration, James is ‘just a human being’. It’s an almost contradictory comment from Ford, but even he knows that if we take away the legend and mysticism that surrounds an idol, we are inevitably left with something underwhelming.

Bizarrely, after the assassination in 1882, Robert and his brother Charles Ford toured America reenacting the murder they had just committed in front of paying audiences. Once again, Dominik brings to light the crazed hankering within humans to gawp at shocking and heinous acts. This strange end to the story could be straight out of an episode of Back Mirror and, if reported today, would surely be rendered hoax-worthy.

If Jesse James was a slow, meandering meditation on its central themes, Dominik’s third outing - Killing Them Softly - was certainly not that. In the era of Trump, this explicitly political film now seems something more: the satire and comedy having only become darker. It is based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel, Cogan’s Trade, but Dominik rewrote it and set in 2008 against a backdrop of the Financial Crisis and Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign. Pitt teams up with Dominik again, this time as Jackie Cogan - a hit man hired to find and kill two small-time criminals who have held up a poker game and made off with the money.

Dominik turns up the black humour with characters that are so unbelievably crass and desperate that you wonder if they have any redeeming features. The script is loaded with blink and you miss it irreverence. Ben Mendelsohn’s character tells a particularly unpleasant anecdote that ends with him sleeping with a prostitute who ‘fucked like a crazy alien from the planet Gobble’. Perhaps the worst of them all is a semi-retired hitman called Mickey (a superb turn from the late James Gandolfini) who leaves the audience squirming in the wake of his deep-rooted misogyny and disregard for anything other than himself.

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Throughout the film, various characters repeat that ‘in America, we’re all just on our own’. Cogan frequently smirks at the political rhetoric he has to endure as his contact to the powerful men making decisions attempts to justify the murders they’re ordering. Dominik uses this stage to stamp on the messages that are frequently played on the televisions and radios throughout the film. We hear sound bites from Obama and Bush as they flaunt the American Dream: ‘out of many we are one!’ Viewed now, it makes for a damning inditement on the current state of American politics. The hopeful promises of the Obama administration seem distant and skin deep, the economic optimism he created now very distant.

Dominik’s most recent work, One More Time With Feeling, documents his friend and collaborator Nick Cave recording the album Skeleton Tree. Whatever your thoughts on the ultimate rock showman, this makes for a remarkable insight into his life at that time and his creative process. It also stands as Dominik’s most complex film because Cave reached out to him whilst dealing with unfathomable grief - his son Arthur died aged 15 during the making of the album.

Although much of the album was written before the tragedy, the lyrics and music take on new meaning in light of it. We see the entire album played out in the recording studio. Dominik filmed the performances on a 3D camera in black and white, with the camera hooked up to a circular dolly track that rotates around Cave. This not only gives a sense of the deep existential thread that runs through the music but also allows us to see the emotive Cave as he sings. The sense of grief is palpable throughout and we hear scattered voiceovers of him musing philosophically about the worth and meaning of life.

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Interestingly, Dominik has since admitted that there is a certain voyeuristic interest in knowing how Cave and his family coped. He was very aware that he didn’t want the film to become some kind of ‘grief porn’ used for commercial gain. The way people are presented and how others view them is a theme that continues to rear its head in his films. In One More Time With Feeling, though, it’s his friend who he is working with and stakes are different. This adds to the unique intimacy of the project and Dominik handles the responsibility admirably.

When returning to Dominik’s films, the lack of women within them is striking. Perhaps aware of this, he has been frequently linked to direct Blonde - a biopic of Marilyn Monroe. Dominik himself has stated that he thinks it will be ‘one of the ten best movies ever made’. It’s a bold statement, and one that could easily be palmed off as gratuitous and unwarranted but considering the capabilities he has shown thus far, it’s one that invigorates and excites. For now though, his exploration of the male form seems set to continue - for his next project, he is slated to direct Tom Hardy as a Navy SEAL in War Party.

Whatever he turns his hand to, it’ll certainly be worth looking out for.