I read the book on which this film is based as well as watched the volumes of interviews which can be seen on YouTube here. The book was a page turner and was a great story, which is a little weird to say, given it was all about a cold-blooded killer. So when I heard that this was being made into a film starring Michael Shannon, and given that two of my top ten all time favorite films are Goodfellas and The Godfather (I like gangster movies…well, ones that don’t star Ryan Gosling), I couldn’t wait.
The film opened in limited release and I was ready to get in line once I found a theater that was showing it (oddly enough, it was playing in a little theater here in the small village of Cranford, New Jersey). I had read a couple reviews and they were mediocre at best. Well, after seeing this film, I have absolutely no idea why those reviews were so tepid. Well, not to say that the film is free of flaws, but there’s nothing here that Michael Shannon, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco from the Sopranos), James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Robert Davi and yes, even Winona Ryder and David Schwimmer (Ross from Friends!) can’t overcome.
Let me first say that Michael Shannon is a BEAST. He also beats out Christopher Walken as the creepiest looking actor on the planet. Even though I was disappointed that Man Of Steel would be revisiting Zod as an antagonist, I cannot wait to see what Shannon does with that part. But I digress. I haven’t seen a lot of Shannon’s work outside of Boardwalk Empire, but I put him in roughly the same category as DeNiro, Denzel and coincidentally Terence Stamp (Superman 2’s Zod); they all do pretty much the same character but they do it so well, it doesn’t matter one bit. In Shannon’s case, it’s all about that rarely blinking, focused scowl, and that tight pursed lip, a countenance that could turn water into ice. This time, that stoic hardly changing scowl which he puts on display through much of the first half of the movie while on his killing spree serves him well, because he pretty much nails Richard Kuklinski a.k.a the Iceman dead on. There’s a scene early on where Kuklinski confronts James Franco’s character. The calm with which Kuklinski comports himself while holding a gun to Franco rivals that great scene with Javier Bardem at the gas station in No Country For Old Men. But as the movie progresses and things start to go off the rails for Kuklinski, we get to see Shannon play rage and it’s as frightening as you would expect. Shannon alone makes this film worth seeing.
What also makes the film worth seeing is the cast, as I mentioned before. I mean, come on, go back to the second paragraph above and re-read that cast list. I don’t believe there’s a sour performance anywhere to be seen. Since the last Fantastic Four movie, Chris Evans is on a mission to prove he’s much more than the Human Torch. As Kuklinski’s brief partner in crime, he was unrecognizable for most of his onscreen time, due to his makeup and his spot on performance. And Winona Ryder…talk about someone who should’ve continued acting over the last decade instead of shoplifting. As Kuklinski’s wife, she blew me away with her performance. Where has she been all this time? David Schwimmer, who I think doesn’t get a lot of respect as an actor, was good, too. I admit I’m a fan but even I was scratching my head at the thought of casting him as a mobster. But the more you learn about his character, the more it makes sense. And in just a little under five minutes of screen time, Stephen Dorff manages to steal a scene right from under Shannon. It’s a completely throwaway scene and Dorff’s character is never touched on again once the scene passes, which is a HUGE mistake because Dorff KILLS it. It’s just poor development when a scene that good could be excised without any consequences to the plot.
From what I remember, a lot of events are added, and few things are touched upon from the book. I recall vividly from the book that one of Kuklinski’s methods of dispatching enemies was to tie them up, dump them in a cave in a remote area of Jersey, set up a light, a video camera (for proof of kill), set bait around the victim, and allow hordes of rats to eat the victim alive. So, it’s understandable that some things were changed (although I recall reading that this claim from the actual Kuklinski was widely thought to be false). Perhaps the fact that the film veers away from the book is why during the third act, it gets a little muddled in terms of who’s stalking who, who’s out to kill who, and so on. My only other nitpick, which I think would have earned the film a solid five stars from me, is that the film only shows us scant glimpses of Kuklinski’s past, establishing how he became such a monster. As it is, those who haven’t read the book might not understand how a working schlub dubbing porno films in a rundown Jersey City theater could quickly make the leap to becoming a cold-blooded killer.
After seeing this, seeing Shannon’s performance, I must watch Take Shelter before seeing him in Man Of Steel. Any actor portraying a killer of reportedly over 100 men that can make you sympathize for him because he is also such a loving family man is an actor worth seeing, no matter the other minor flaws in the movie. Much like the Sopranos focused as much on Tony’s family life as his life in the mob, this movie makes you feel for Kuklinski because he genuinely loved and cared for his family and closest friends. Take the dichotomy of family vs. mob, the slow build and ultimate crescendo of Donnie Brasco, and to a lesser extent, Carlito’s Way, but amp it way high, you’ve got this movie here. 4/5 reels