Australian director Andrew Dominik has only made three movies in his career, each a highly notable crime film, with one, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, being arguably one of the best films of the 2000s. Each film has varied in tone from pitch-black humor to broken reflection, but all have similar themes: a sharp focus on masculinity and male friendship (which always falls apart by the last reel), a contrast between wide-open and enclosed spaces, and brutal, fatalistic violence that is utterly inevitable. More than any modern filmmaker, Dominik makes tragedies—ones where male friendships spill blood, the universe of the criminal is small and petty, and the characters live and die trapped by their natures and appetites.
Chopper (2000) — Based on the life of Australian crook Mark “Chopper” Read, Chopper is a dirty, oddly tender movie about a media-savvy psychopath whose violent tendencies are more compulsory than joyful. It’s shaggier and looser than his later films, which makes it fun to watch, and Eric Bana is remarkable as a freak struggling with his basic humanity and inhumanity. Chopper at his best is a PR hound and a disturbed maniac, but watching him we understand his fierce isolation and inability to be anything but what he is.
The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007) — This is Dominik’s masterpiece thus far, remarkable for its simultaneously sweeping feel and focus on its characters, all of whom have either seen their best days or are unwittingly living them out. An anti-western set around the last days of the haunted, unstable Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the man who will kill him and be damned for it, the film is a meditation on death, celebrity, and existence in a cruel, shrinking world. It should be noted that it features the heart-stopping photography of Roger Deakins, a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a cast of great character actors backing Affleck and Pitt at their career best. I won’t write anymore but to say it’s like watching a sunset turn into dark storm clouds.
Killing Them Softly (2012) — Dominik’s most recent film was hated by audiences, and no wonder: It’s a cynical, bleak neo-noir that borders on nihilism, and the last lines are a punch to the gut. Following Brad Pitt as a mob hitman cleaning up the mess left after a card-game heist, Dominik sets the film during the ’08 recession to make a neat allegory (though a little heavy-handed) for American capitalism in and of itself: cruel, delusional, and a scam that has to keep going for the sake of those at the top. Even more so than Jesse James, Softly is about those trapped both by a system that presents itself as stable and, even more, by their own selfish, greedy natures.