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Film / Killing Them Softly

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Don't rip off poker games. It's bad for business.

Killing Them Softly is a 2012 crime film starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini, and written & directed by Andrew Dominik (who'd previously worked with Pitt on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

When a mob poker game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta) is held up by two masked gunmen, suspicion immediately falls on Trattman. And with good reason: years ago, he'd actually ripped off his own game, then drunkenly copped to it - to the amusement of his fellow wiseguys. This time, feeling that not punishing the robbers would be bad for business, hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in. Although Jackie deduces almost immediately that Trattman isn't stupid enough to hit his own game twice, he still decides to make an example of Trattman. Jackie also quickly uncovers the real culprit — but since they actually know each other, he decides to subcontract that hit to Mickey (Gandolfini), who turns out to be a bitter drunk more interested in working his way through every prostitute in town.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: Killing Them Softly is based on the novel Cogan's Trade.
  • Affably Evil: Markie Trattman... well, out of all of this film's assortment of characters, anyway. Even the gangsters he robbed don't seem upset about it when they learn the truth.
  • Awesome Aussie: Averted. Russell speaks with Ben Mendelsohn's natural Australian accent but is about as far removed from a competent badass as you can get, clearly being nothing more than a low-level idiot.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: When Jackie checks his gun's ammo, he closes the revolver's cylinder by turning his wrist. With rotary cylinder revolvers, this can bend the cylinder arm, misaligning the cylinder and leading to a misfire, potentially exploding the weapon.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Done a few times and shown in full, gory detail.
  • Bothering by the Book: Mickey explains to Jackie that before coming to Boston, he killed someone from the wrong jurisdiction and, per the family's rules, he's only "allowed" to take on one of Jackie's two planned killings. Of course, Mickey isn't actually trying to be subversive; he's just lazy.
  • Butt-Monkey: Trattman.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: New York Mickey has simply run out of fucks to give. His appetite for booze and women is matched only by his taste for rambling, incoherent soliloquies.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The F-word is pronounced a hell of a lot.
  • Continuity Cameo: Sam Shepard's character Dillon, played a much larger role in George V. Higgins' first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and was played in that book's film adaptation by Peter Boyle.
  • Crapsack World: The life of crime has rarely looked less appealing than in this film, from low-level thieves and enforcers who only do it because they can't find legitimate work to hitmen whose best days are long behind them to bosses who now come across more as frustrated middle-managers dealing with other bosses, bad employees and a changing world than Al Capone.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Averted Trope. The film goes out of its way to show that gangsters, once the embodiment of free living, are now just businessmen, complete with budget restrictions and public relations. Hitmen are not mythic badasses and it's clear that the mob has fallen very far from the days when they reigned supreme.
  • Destination Defenestration: When Dillon and Kenny rough up Trattman after the first poker-game heist, they slam him through a window, pull him back in, then toss him out the back door. Later, after Jackie shoots him, Trattman's car rolls into an intersection and is struck by a truck, causing Trattman's head to smash into the windshield.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Jackie is visibly disturbed when Mickey threatens a hooker.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade.
  • Genre Deconstruction: of the gangster movies.
  • Hollywood New England: The film takes place in the grimy, crime-middled parts of Massachusetts.
  • Hookers and Blow: What Mickey would rather do than prepare for his hit (albeit with booze instead of blow).
  • Killed Offscreen: Dillon, who is ailing throughout the film, is mentioned to have died by the end.
  • Meaningful Background Event: The movie takes place during the last days of the 2008 Obama/McCain presidential campaigns, as well as the USA's financial meltdown. The last scene appears to coincide with Obama's victory.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Two mooks deliver one to Trattman. Later, Jackie and Driver admit they may have been a bit excessive.
  • No Name Given: Driver, Jackie's liason with the local mob.
  • Oh, Crap!: Trattman's expression after Jackie pulls up next to his car, gun drawn.
  • Orcus on His Throne: Mickey. Unusually, however, it's not a plot hole; it's a very deliberate illustration of just how far organized crime has fallen.
  • Professional Killer: Jackie, Dillon, and Mickey; though one might be hard-pressed to actually describe Mickey as "professional".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Both Jackie and Mickey, but especially Driver, who looks and acts like an office clerk.
  • Ruthless Foreign Gangsters: Russell, one of the thieves, is Australian, just like his actor Ben Mendelsohn. However, being ruthless doesn't mean he's competent or intimidating.
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: Exaggerated, Frankie's DBS had its barrels sawed down to the point that they're shorter than the shells it's loaded with. He compares using it to a hand grenade going off.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Mickey is this, as his entire subplot leads to absolutely nothing, he proves to be completely useless and ends up being Put on a Bus.
  • Slow Motion: Russell, high on heroin.
  • Smash to Black: The film ends with Jackie demanding that Driver pay him his full fee, rather than a discounted total for three rub-outs.
  • Stupid Crooks: The robbers who kick off the plot.
  • Title Drop: Jackie prefers to "kill 'em softly" (i.e. from a distance), rather than up close, so as not to deal with the panicked victim begging for his life; director Andrew Dominik reportedly kept secret that he was to be changing the film's title from Cogan's Trade to Killing Them Softly, so Brad Pitt was unaware that he was invoking this trope.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The two dimwits hired to rob the poker game. Especially Russell, who makes his accomplice look like Meyer Lansky. Ironically, Russell is the only surviving participant in the heist by the end of the film, in this case getting arrested for drug trafficking through his own stupidity.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
    • When Mickey proves to be unable to carry out his hit, Jackie has him arrested on a parole-violation beef and Put on a Bus.
    • Frankie shows Jackie to Squirrel, and once Jackie's killed Squirrel, he proceeds to kill Frankie as well.