Roger Ebert reviews ‘Killing Them Softly’… and gets major plot points wrong!

I want to start by saying Roger Ebert is one of the reasons I learned to love film and became a film critic.

After I’ve finished a review my usual next step is to read his review of the same film. Sometimes I find a nuance that I overlooked. My review may or may not agree with his, and neither of us are right or wrong, criticism of film is opinion-based. But I was so shocked by his review of the recent Killing Them Softly that I felt compelled to point out that he really blew this one.

Some of what he wrote (read it in its entirety here) follows, with my comments in italics:

“One night the game is hit by two hooded stick-up men, who make off with a big pile of mob money.”

This is accurate.

“The job was pulled off by insignificant crooks Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and since it happens near the beginning of the film, we know instinctively that Russell and Johnny aren’t going to be around at the end.”

This is wrong. Very wrong. Russell, Johnny (known in the film as “Squirrel”) and Frankie (Scott McNairy) had no involvement with the first robbery at all. Squirrel’s plan is to rob Markie’s game now that Markie has been forgiven and is back in operation. The idea is that the mob will pin the blame on Markie and the robbers will get off scott-free. Ebert was way off.

“A high-level mob boss named Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives in town, hauling his in-flight luggage through the airport like a traveling businessman. He orders the executions of Russell and Johnny by a silky hit man named Jackie (Brad Pitt), who likes to kill softly, as explained by one of the many aging classic songs on the soundtrack”

1. Mickey is not the boss of anything. He’s an aging hit-man brought in by Jackie because Jackie knows Squirrel and is afraid that might create a problem in killing him.

2. Mickey is working for the mobsters who hired Jackie and is under his supervision, not vice versa.

3. In the end, Mickey has no role in anything else that happens of substance, save an interesting sequence involving Mickey, Jackie and a hooker in Mickey’s hotel room.

James Gandolfini was the boss in 'Sopranos', but it just a minor hitman in 'Killing Them Softly'
James Gandolfini was the boss in ‘Sopranos’, but it just a minor hitman in ‘Killing Them Softly’

“As the body count grows, we meet Driver (Richard Jenkins), a gravel-voiced chief executive who appears often behind the wheel of a car parked in the wastelands beneath bridges.”

Driver isn’t the chief of anything. He’s a messenger boy, who delivers orders from the unseen mob bosses to Jackie, as he did to Jackie’s predecessor Dillon. If he were the boss of anything, he’d have been able to decide if Jackie was right about just killing Markie right away rather than beating him first. He wasn’t.

A cast is assembled from various flavors of tough guys, they’re placed in a dreary and joyless cityscape, they hold a series of fraught conversations, there is a great deal of suffering and blood, and most of them are required to die by the end.

Tough guys? Jackie is a tough guy. Driver is a mealy-mouthed messenger boy. Markie is a wimp who doesn’t fight back when he’s getting a beat-down, he just keeps protesting that he’s innocent. Hardly tough. Frankie is a wimp. Russell might be tough during a robbery but away from that type of situation, he’s a drug-addled moron. Squirrel isn’t tough enough to even get involved in his own robbery scheme. He’s a dry-cleaner. Mickey may have been a tough guy but now all he’s interested in is easy money, drinking and hookers. I doubt he could have even carried out the hit he was brought in to do. The two guys who beat Markie are tough. So there were four flavors of tough guy if you count Dillon. Nowhere near enough to deserve Ebert’s description. Again, only three people died for the sin of robbing the card game (Dillon’s death is unrelated to that event).

After examining Ebert’s review, one has to wonder, did he even watch this movie? Or did he see the trailers, read the press kit, and having perhaps read the original novel, formulate a factually inaccurate review? Either way, the glaring plot and character errors needed to be addressed.

7 thoughts on “Roger Ebert reviews ‘Killing Them Softly’… and gets major plot points wrong!

  1. I can’t understand why Dillon died, as we are informed by Cogan. It seems random and unconnected somehow. Did I miss anything significant regarding this?

  2. I thought the Killing Them Softly movie was very good, well written, and the acting was excellent. I too think Ebert should give it another shot. The violence was handled without personal gratification or power lust. I was especially taken by the addition of the television news to the various scenes. And Brad’s final remarks about Jefferson and our last two Presidents’ remarks about one America and being equal hit home like a ton of bricks. All the characters seemed lost and lonely and desparate to make a buck. So who is really killing whom softly ? Our government, our corporations, our wall street cheats? Certainly, not just the guys who have landed at the bottom of the food chain! A thought provoking movie which seemed to put Ebert into a stupor.

  3. Ebert says:
    “Killing Them Softly” begins with a George V. Higgins novel set in Boston in 1974 and moves its story to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2008, to allow televised speeches by Barack Obama, John McCain and George W. Bush to run frequently in the background.”


    The movie was filmed in New Orleans, probably because the producers got a good $$$ deal. But, all throughout it, there are references to “Somerville” “Hanover” “Haverhill” and Wollaston, all in Massachusetts. The Gandolfini character comes “up” from New York. As with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Coogan’s Trade” is set in the Boston area. Higgins was a Boston attorney.

  4. How about his Looper review where he wrote that both the targets to be assassinated AND the loopers were sent from the future? Wrong Roger: the loopers are from the present (2044 in the movie) and only the targets are from the future (2074). And in his Dark Knight Rises review he also confessed to not understanding the plot:

    “All of these characters and their activities produce stretches in the first half of the film during which, frankly, I was not entirely sure who was doing what and with which and to whom.”

    Later in that same review he wrote that Bane was the child who escaped the prison. He wasn’t — it was Marion Cotillard’s character, which was a pretty important plot point.

    Is Roger falling asleep during these movies? Or does he need hearing aids?

  5. I’m in the same boat as you Brian. I watched the film on Monday and then read Ebert’s review the following morning. Made me wonder if we had watched the same film. I sincerely hope Ebert acknowledges his mistake and reviews the film again. Doesn’t seem fair to review a film when his summarized plot is filled with mistakes.

  6. Sadly, Roger has been making gross errors in his reviews this past year. Look at his review of “The Bourne Legacy,” when he embarrassingly mistakens the asian assassin at the end for some ordinary street cop:

    one particularly determined undercover cop with dark aviator glasses persists beyond all reason. Since he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue, it’s impossible to say if he has any idea how important Cross and Shearing are, but he keeps coming like the Energizer Bunny.

    Uh, Roger, this guy was not some random undercover cop, he was an assassin from another branch of the agency sent to kill the main character.

    Earlier in his review he remarks:

    I freely confess that for at least the first 30 minutes I had no clear idea of why anything was happening.

    Uh, the first 30 minutes shows Cross (Jeremy Renner) in the wilderness taking pills as part of his training.

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