Brad Pitt returned to Cannes on Tuesday as a humane hitman in Killing Them Softly, a bloody and comic gangster movie that delivers a damning indictment of the state of the American nation.
The film directed by Andrew Dominik has Pitt working for a mob syndicate run like any major US corporation, complete with incompetent middle management and brutal cost-cutting to cope with recession.
Co-produced by Pitt, it is one of 22 works vying for the Palme d'Or top prize at the Cannes festival and was due for its red carpet gala premiere later on Tuesday.
The film, which reunites Pitt with New Zealand-born Australian Dominik who directed him in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, combines highly stylised violence with a nostalgic American soundtrack.
The action unfolds just as the subprime mortgage crisis begins to wreak havoc on financial markets at the end of 2008, in the thick of the US presidential election campaign that brought Barack Obama to power.
"It was an interesting way to look at the financial crisis," Pitt, sporting shaggy blond-tinted hair and a goatee, told reporters after a well-received press screening.
The theme — economic crisis, the failure of politicians, greed and unkept promises — is set out in TV and radio programmes that play in the background as the small-time mobsters go about their sordid business.
"I live in America, and in America you're on your own," quips Pitt's cynical mob enforcer Jackie Cogan as Obama delivers his acceptance speech in which he outlines his vision of a new and united America.
"America's not a country, it's just a business," says the character played by Pitt, who is joined in the ensemble cast by Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini as a former top hitman turned drunken, whoring wreck.
Cogan is called in when two lowlife, bumbling thieves — played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn — knock over a high-stakes poker game among local gangsters.
His contact with the organisation, a straight-laced and squeamish attorney played by Jenkins, passes on the mobsters' orders and later has to inform the killer that his fee for a triple murder has been slashed by a third.
Pitt told the press conference he did not see the film as an attack on Obama and that it was mere coincidence that Killing Them Softly was coming out as the US president seeks re-election.
"I lean more towards the left and I want to understand my own bias, and so I'm not opposed to characters who have different views from yourself," he said.
Dominik said that like fairytales for children, genre films like his latest work helped people understand the world.
"This movie I think does provide advice on how to survive in a world of fierce competitors," he said.
When he read the 1974 book the film is based on — Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins — he said he "realised it was about economic crisis and the failure of regulation."
The movie title comes from Cogan's stated desire to avoid unpleasantness and unnecessary pain and suffering when he has to bring an abrupt end to someone's life.
"Jackie as much as possible tries to make it as painless an experience as possible for the murderee. ... He's very concerned that the violence not be cruel and unusual for the victim," Dominik said.
The first reviews popping up on the Internet were mostly positive.
"A juicy, bloody, grimy and profane crime drama that amply satisfies as a deep-dish genre piece, Killing Them Softly rather insistently also wants to be something more," wrote The Hollywood Reporter.