The film is set in 2008, during the US election. It begins with audio clips from the candidates, overheard in the background, including Obama's speech at the 2008 Democratic convention: ''What is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.''
In the foreground, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn stands like a wraith, a filthy bedraggled wreck of a man, addled by heroin, holding a pack of dogs on a street that has been largely swept away by Katrina. This is Russell, recently released from a correctional institution. His friend and cell-mate, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), just as big a loser but not such a junkie, knows a guy who has an opportunity. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) tells them about a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). He's connected and protected, but a few years earlier he robbed his own game. If it happens again, reasons Johnny, the mob will blame Markie. Easy money. Frankie and Russell put pantyhose on their heads and waltz into a world of trouble.
Jackie is meant to seem like a Wall Street guy, in that sense, but with more compassion. He has no illusions. ''America is not a country, it's a business,'' he says at one point, the line that will be most remembered, perhaps an inversion of Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous statement that ''the business of America is business''. Jackie doesn't mean it in a nice way. He does what he has to do to stay alive, and every job is a negotiation. There's a telling scene where he and Driver discuss bringing in an outside hitman from New York, played by James Gandolfini. He's expensive, complains Driver. Not in this economy, says Jackie.
The modern gangster film since Tarantino has been humorously heartless, but this one takes a different tack. It's often funny, occasionally graphic in its violence, overtly stylish in directorial technique and pointed in its politics, but it isn't about the glamour of gangsterism. Casting Brad Pitt makes Jackie inevitably somewhat glamorous, but Pitt plays quietly against that in a fine performance. This is a film about structures, networks, the regulatory practices of the underworld. It's about the economy, stupid, as the slogan goes.