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."
Pitt runs Plan B, which produced "Killing Them Softly," with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, and compares their trio to "a little garage band."
"I'm focusing more on producing this year than getting in front of the camera," says Pitt, adding that he's particularly excited about producing the next film from director Steve McQueen ("Shame"). "Killing Them Softly" will be released this fall.
Higgins' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" was made into a film in 1973 starring Robert Mitchum. It, too, was a box office disappointment but has a devoted cult and critical following. It led Dominik to pick up a copy of Higgins' "Cogan's Trade."
"There was an untapped vein," says Dominik. "It was like after `All the Pretty Horses' they decided, `Cormac McCarthy movies, nobody wants to see that.'"
Dominik gave a comedic tone to the story, which is largely centered on a series of Beckett-like conversations between the thieves, punctured by bloody outbursts. On hatching a dubious plan, one says: "We're not the only smart guys in the world."
"I wanted it to be very square and straight faced, almost like a comic strip panel," says Dominik.
Pitt is now 48 and has six children with Angelina Jolie, who didn't join him in Cannes. The couple, who alternate their movies so neither is in production at the same time, is currently staying outside of London while Jolie shoots a film in the area. The more measured pace suits Pitt.
"It just doesn't happen back to back to back," says Pitt. "You need time off to refuel and to be inspired again. There's no greater inspiration than family."