After last year's double whammy of Tree of Life and Moneyball I concluded that Brad Pitt was the greatest of all today's movie stars - perhaps not the finest actor but one who never fails to ignite the screen.
Pitt meshes movie-star glamour, ageless good looks and acting chops to bring characters to life in a way a mere first-rate performer could never achieve.
Pitt is also proving to be a wonderfully canny and adventurous filmmaker, which is how in the space of a year he has produced two glamorous best picture Oscar nominees and now, with Killing Them Softly, facilitates and stars in a low-budget crime comedy dripping with grunge chic that will do no harm to his street cred.
Reteaming with super-talented Australian Andrew Dominik (Chopper), with whom he made the magisterial revisionist western The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pitt plays a professional assassin called upon to find and punish a pair of hapless hoods who knock over a gangster-run card game run by an equally stupid mob lackey named Markie.
Markie has engineered the same stunt himself once before and, not surprisingly, suspicion falls on him. So he cops a brutal beating made that much more difficult to watch because the cowering, crying Markie is played by none other than Ray Liotta, who has spent an entire career dishing up such bone-breaking punishments to others.
Pitt's Jackie Cogan, however, is at the other end of the Darwinian scale when it comes to enforcing order in the underworld. Considerate, quietly spoken, unfalteringly loyal but lethally efficient, he will not shoot anyone he looks in the eyes. ("I like to kill 'em softly, from a distance," he says.)
Indeed, Jackie is so squeamish about killing people that he subcontracts part of the job to an embattled colleague, Mickey (James Gandolfini), an overweight schlub burdened with domestic and legal problems and serious addictions to booze and hookers.
All this sounds like a rather routine crime flick. What makes it such thought-provoking fun is that Dominik, in adapting George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade, has set Cogan's murderous mission in the aftermath of the GFC and the transition of power from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Indeed, the underworld is suffering from the same problems as the rest of America. Talk about trickle-down economics.
With the grim financial news and the hollow rhetoric of the candidates playing on TV screens in the background, Jackie must put together the hit, arguing pennies and bureaucratic red tape with Richard Jenkins' harassed mob accountant and calculating the cost of dumping the rapidly declining Mickey.
Writer-director Dominik's use of the TV reports running in the background to make the connection between crime at both ends of the food chain is perhaps too obvious to make Killing Them Softly a great movie. However, there is unsettling amusement at seeing normally flush underworld types cutting costs and worrying about expenses like the rest of us.
The chief pleasure of Killing Them Softly is not the GFC backbeat but the atmosphere of melancholy and exhaustion hanging over the whole enterprise and the startlingly ravaged post-Katrina New Orleans setting, which ace Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser has captured in all its bleak beauty. He and Dominick are also brilliant at building menace and unleashing breathtaking bouts of violence.
But what will linger longest in the memory is the depth of characterisation, which Dominick and his stunning cast achieve mainly through a series of languorous, profanity-peppered scenes (much of it lifted from Higgins' original) that have a low-life lyricism without ever lurching into Tarantino-esque archness.
The centrepiece is an extended scene in which Pitt, who brings the perfect mixture of humanity, grace and flat-out menace to his reluctant killer, and the great Gandolfini rake over the dying embers of the burnt-out older man's life. It is one of the most chilling dissections of fast-fading masculinity and its embittered fall-out I can recall.
And for sheer manic exuberance we have Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, let off the leash by long-time mate Dominik to play one of two dumb thieves doomed to die. Worth the price of admission to see an off-his-nut Aussie idiot in an American crime movie.