Brad Pitt returned to Cannes as a hitman with a conscience in Killing Them Softly, an anti-capitalist gangster movie that delivers a damning indictment of the state of the American nation.
The violent tale - which Kiwi-born, Australia-based director Andrew Dominik insists is a comedy - has the star working for a mob syndicate run like any big US company, complete with incompetent middle management and brutal cost-cutting to cope with recession.
Pitt donned a tuxedo to climb Cannes' red-carpeted steps for the gala premiere alongside the director and cast, but the other half of Hollywood's hottest couple, his partner Angelina Jolie, was not with him.
The movie, 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 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 press screening of the film that is competing with 21 other works for the Palme d'Or top prize.
He plays cynical mob enforcer Jackie Cogan who is called in to whack two lowlife, bumbling hoodlums - played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn - after they raid a high-stakes poker game among local gangsters.
His contact with the crime syndicate, 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.
The themes - the failure of politicians, greed and unkept promises - are 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 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 ace hitman turned drunken, whoring wreck.
Dominik told the post-screening press conference that that view of the United Sates reflected his opinion that it was a country "very concerned with making money" and that Hollywood was even more obsessed with making a buck.
The message he delivers in Killing Them Softly is that US capitalism is as savage as organised crime and that craven politicians have miserably failed the people they are supposed to serve.
But Pitt, who also co-produced the movie, said 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 fairy tales for children, genre films such as 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.
Indiewire film news website called it "brilliant and angry" and declared it the "anti-thriller for our times".