By Tom Charity Special to CNN - There were two big American gangster films competing for the Palme d'Or this year and both were directed by Australians.
John Hillcoat's "Lawless" is the more conventional of the two, a Prohibition saga about Virginia bootleggers feuding with corrupt local law officials led by Guy Pearce's snobby sadist.
Despite a heavyweight cast including Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman, a screenplay by singer/novelist Nick Cave and a careful balance of romance and extreme violence, "Lawless" mostly fails to make its proud country bootleggers seem fresh or interesting. The movie also lacks the uncompromising edge that made Hillcoat's previous efforts, "The Road" and "The Proposition" so memorable.
"Killing Them Softly" is a different beast, a sensationally cynical crime thriller brilliantly adapted from George V. Higgins' novel "Cogan's Trade" by Andrew Dominik. Brad Pitt stars as a fixit guy for the wiseguys, someone who will provide muscle -- or more -- to clean up the mess after something untoward goes down.
But the movie boasts a vivid gallery of lowlifes and hustlers, including James Gandolfini as a contract killer belly-flopping into a midlife crisis, Ben Mendelsohn as a lippy Australian junkie, and Ray Liotta as an ill-fated gambler. What unites them is what divides them -- the fact that they're all out for number one.
If nothing else, "Killing Them Softly" should restore Higgins' from the neglect into which he's fallen since his death in 1999. Surprisingly, this is only the second movie to be adapted from his novels, even though the first, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (with Robert Mitchum), is regarded as a 70s classic.
A lawyer by training, Higgins was a master of the criminal vernacular whose thrillers stand comparison with the best in the field, as Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane have been tireless in acknowledging. Gripping, serious and atmospheric, "Killing Them Softly" lives up to that pedigree; it's a crime movie that drug dealers, bankers and businessmen will understand equally well.