Few studio pictures interest Brad Pitt these days. With their emphasis on aliens, superheroes and the relentless drive in Hollywood for cash-generating franchises, Pitt now happily produces - through his company Plan B - the kind of films he'd like to see still get made.
Killing Them Softly harks back to the golden age of independent American cinema. It features a pair of inept hustlers (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), who are hunted down by a black leather-clad hit man (Brad Pitt), after they rob the wrong poker game. The dark, dialogue-heavy journey is set against a grim, bleak vision of America, circa 2008: a nation that appears to be self-imploding with a crippling financial crisis and natural disasters that wreak havoc on ordinary people.
"Why I was interested in it, for me, it was at the time when the whole mortgage scandal was being uncovered," says Pitt. "A lot of people were losing their homes, it was very upsetting. And it was due to deregulation. Under the rules of capitalism, it was OK. Which brings up the question: What is responsible capitalism?"
Although the film doesn't seek to answer the question, it does reunite Pitt - who turns 50 next year - with the director of The Assassination of Jesse James, the Australian Andrew Dominik. The two became firm friends during the making of their undervalued 2007 film: one which, like their new movie, took years to get the green light.
Like his friend and benefactor, Dominik, 45, remains committed to independent, intelligent cinema that speaks about the world we live in. He admits his choices are not remotely commercial (which partly explains the US$15 million [Dh55] film's disappointing opening in the US last week, taking in a surprisingly low $7m over its opening weekend). Still, he bristles at the notion that the film - whose cast is all male - is, as some have claimed, misogynistic in any way.
"They're all talking about women all the time," Dominik reasons. "It's about men. Men are interested in women. It's about men talking about women."
Killing Them Softly is also notable for impressive turns from The Sopranos star James Gandolfini as a washed-up hit man and the Goodfellas star Ray Liotta as a small-time mobster who gets caught in the crossfire.
Liotta - enjoying a career renaissance at 57; he has a clutch of other movies coming up, including The Details with Tobey Maguire - believes the film is about far more than America, its bitter political and economic battlegrounds and its socially divided people. Everyone, he insists, can relate.
"The uprising in Egypt and all these other places, it's because people aren't making money and want the opportunity and feel forgotten," he says. "It resonates with everybody. We're just pretty blatant about it [in the US]. Money makes the world go around. If you have to support your family, you need to get a job. That's just how it's set up. You're not going to get food for free. Unless you go and kill a deer."
Liotta's tough, east-coast view on life belies a softer side, largely unseen to audiences in cinema. Usually, he's "the one chasing the bad guys and beating them up" as he puts it. In Dominik's new film, he's the one getting beaten. Brutally. Which may surprise some but not him. "I've never been in a fight in my life," he says, matter of factly, "so I'm intrigued by these things. It makes you feel better about your life, watching the violence on the screen. I think people like to watch things almost as a voyeur. Most people live a decent, solid life."
The beating that Liotta's character suffers in the movie is stomach-churning in its intensity and is one of several key scenes that remain embedded in one's consciousness after viewing. No longer the tough guy, he adds that the political views within the film - which veer more towards Barack Obama's than the opposite - may well be largely lost on many who see it.
"This movie could have gone during the Reagan years, when everyone was doing really well," he says. "Some people won't even realise the political implications: that Obama's saying he wants everyone to make money and work as one and be one nation. I think a movie like this, even with Brad, doesn't guarantee [an audience]. It's not your formulaic, big blockbuster kind of movie. Some of it will go over people's heads. But what can you do?"
• Killing Them Softly is out now in UAE cinemas