By Mike Collett-White
CANNES, France (Reuters) - Brad Pitt's latest movie paints a bleak picture of the broken American dream, blending a violent but comic gangster story with overt criticism of politicians' failure to address the economic crisis.
"Killing Them Softly" takes place in an unspecified U.S. city which has borne the brunt of the financial collapse -- houses are abandoned, shops are shuttered and petty criminals and mobsters alike are struggling to get by.
The movie, co-produced by Pitt, is in the main competition at the Cannes film festival this year, and has its red carpet world premiere on Tuesday.
Pitt plays ruthless hitman Jackie Cogan, brought in by a syndicate of mafia bosses to eliminate a group of thieves who raid a high-stakes poker game.
The title derives from his insistence on avoiding unnecessary pain and suffering when he carries out his killings.
It features gangster movie mainstays Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, and reunites Pitt with New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik after the two collaborated on "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford".
The political message of the film is unavoidable. News channels play in the background in bars and on the radio in cars, and the topic of debate is invariably the financial crisis, political failure, greed and shattered dreams.
Barack Obama, John McCain and George W. Bush appear on the 2008 campaign trail making promises to address the economy and preserve the ideals on which the country was built.
In a scene at the end, Cogan launches a scathing attack on Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, whom he accuses of being a liar and hypocrite.
"I live in America and in America you're on your own," Pitt's character declares. "America's not a country, it's just a business."
At a news conference following a press screening of the film, Pitt said he did not want Killing Them Softly to be seen as an attack on President Obama.
"I lean more towards the left and I want to understand my own bias and so I am not opposed to characters that have different views from yourself," he said.
"I think very highly of him (Jefferson) actually.
"We are playing people with very specific opinions. We are clearly living in our country at a time of great divide and so I'm interested in those other arguments that are ... certainly not mine."
He spoke of a "toxic" political divide in the United States where "it's more about the party winning the argument than about the issues themselves. It's a serious, serious problem."
Pitt did not seem surprised when questions turned from the film and its political message to his personal life.
He told journalists that his fiancee Angelina Jolie was not in Cannes, quelling rumors that the Hollywood power couple would appear together on the red carpet.
Asked when they planned to get married, he replied: "We have no date. We actually really, truly have no date. Certainly date-wise it's absolutely rumor.
"And I'm still hoping we can figure out our marriage equality in the States before that date," he added, referring to his support for same-sex marriage countrywide.
Liotta, best known as a nasty mobster, said it made a welcome change to be on the receiving end of a cinematic beating. In Killing Them softly he plays the likeable Markie, who is framed and subsequently punished for the poker heist.
"What I really liked about it was I'm usually the one beating people up so it was nice to go the other way and have them beat me up, it was really a nice change.
"The hardest part was letting those two guys beat me up because I know I can take them. That's the roughest part, these little shrimps beating me up."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)