A man is never so monstrous as when he fights to maintain his illusions. Sadly, this film is not the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun, chronicling the adventures of Val Kilmer’s iconic character. Instead, this is the tale of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), one of the most prolific hitmen of the New Jersey mafia, implicated in over 100 murders for the Gambino family. Naturally, it was a mere matter of time before a move gets made about such a singular monster. I’m surprised that this world hasn’t seen a film about Alberto Anastasia or Frank Abbandando.
So who is Richard Kuklinski? Shannon portrays him as bottle up ball of dour rage. There’s a brutality being bred out of our species- a person like Kuklinski would have been considered heroic material in dark ages Europe. He’s a constantly brooding materialist who only finds emotional expression via the act of murder. That, of course, is a hindrance of the film- telling a tale of a sociopath is hard, because they are lacking in interior monologue. This film does fairly well at showing that a mob hitman is just a serial killer with better social networking- for other examples, consider Henry Lee Lucas.
The film gets it’s dramatic steam from the creeping conflict between Kuklinski’s criminal profession, where he is the executioner of Ray DeMeo (Ray Liotta), and his banal life raising a catholic brood in suburban New Jersey, where he is supported by his shrinking violet of a wife (Winona Ryder). Gradual paranoia, police investigation, and unreliable friends gradually accumulate and take their toll.
Ray Liotta is good and menacing as the mob boss, bringing an excellent balance of savvy and sociopathy. Ryder’s performance is a stale retread of Lorraine Bracco’s superior performance in Goodfellas. It goes without saying that this film is derived from Goodfellas, albeit without the narratives and glamour; also Ghost Dog, and also Donnie Brasco. What especially makes this film work is the banality of the evil portrayed. There are no outlandish Tommy DeVitos, no Luca Brasi’s here. Only schlubs who treat assasination with the same sangfroid as unloading a freighter. The best supporting part is Chris Evans as a fellow enforcer, who’s both convivial and completely ruthless.
Mind you, when Kuklinski grows a mustache for the 1970s, I had a hard time not believing that I was instead watching The Homicidal Adventures of Ron Swanson. Are you listening, Hollywood? I’d pay top dollar for a Ron Swanson hit man movie. Top dollar.
As a director, Ariel Vromen is competent if rarely inspired. His director of photography, Bobby Bukowski, deserves some acclaim for the shots. The mark of somebody who captures the versimilitude of the 60s and 70s are the people who remember that everyone used to smoke, leaving nicotine slime on every surface. This movie has that yellowed, grimy characteristic. It’s a reminder of the ugliness of the time and the ugliness of New Jersey.
I’d say there’s a couple of reasons why this film won’t do well. The first is because this film conveys all the squalor of the mob life with none of the glamour. The second is because it’s hard to make a sociopathic hitman to be both a realistic character and a sympathetic character at the same time. This movie could have done a lot more to exploit the menace of Shannon’s performance by having him stalk and terrify his victims.
There are a couple of scenes where Shannon’s performance crests above the material, suggestive of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, or De Niro in Taxi Driver. A similar dysfunctional intensity of a human bullet spinning towards a victim. Not enough to make this a truly memorable film, though it is a good true crime movie.
Fair Value of this Film: $8.00. It’s not a bad choice for the theaters right now. And if you’re doing a 70s mafia movie marathon, it’s an apt filler between The French Connection and Donnie Brasco. Enjoyable but lacking in any memorability
With the pretension of a mook using a godfather’s name in vain,
G. W. Devon Pack