I like surprises. I especially like surprises when I go to the cinema. I like entering the theatre with little or no expectations and being pleasantly surprised by the two hour traffic of my stage. Of course such things are relatively rare in this age of endless interconnectivity and near constant reviews of everything that a human being can consume. Generally you know what to expect. Today was a nice exception.
Michael Shannon has developed a career out of playing intense and often brooding characters to great effect. He was the crazed young man who is perhaps the only truly sane character in Revolutionary Road, he was the family man driven over the edge by his nightmares in Take Shelter and the crooked cop having a bad day in Premium Rush. Such is his talent that with the right roles he will surely become a star. Today he plays Richard Kuklinski, a real life Mafia hit-man who built a career on a pathological coldness yet maintained a relatively happy family life until his arrest in 1986.
Our tale opens in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1965, Richard is a quiet and brooding young man attempting to woo Deborah played by Winona Ryder. The pair fall in love and marry though Deborah remains unaware that Richard works as a pornography distributor on the fringes of the underworld. He soon displays a propensity for great violence at the least provocation and comes to the attention of local boss Roy Demeo played with a vicious charm by Ray Liotta. Richard becomes a man who removes the little problems that Roy encounters. The years pass and the body count rises and meanwhile Richard and Deborah have had two daughters who seem to worship the ground on which their father walks. Business has been good to Richard and he has become a wealthy man. He explains his largesse to his unsuspecting friends as being down to his skill as a foreign currency trader. Things are almost too good and so it proves as the actions of Roy's deadbeat friend Josh Rosenthal, played by an incredibly sleazy David Schwimmer, conspire to drive a wedge between Roy and Richard. Richard's life begins to spiral out of control and as his well appointed facade falls apart so does his grip on his psychosis.
What separates today's flick and indeed Michael Shannon's performance is that unlike so many films it does not in any way seek to glamorise the lives of what are deeply disturbed men. They do not live normal lives like the rest of us, they live violently. It is the violence and the underlying psychosis which anchor their lives. Richard Kuklinski is a very scary individual, always on the edge of violence. Yet so is Ray Liotta's Roy Demeo and Richard's fellow contract killer Mr. Freezy played by Chris Evans. They are men who hurt small animals, men who engage in domestic violence. They are in short, not to be admired or normalised in the manner so many gangsters are in hagiography-like biopics.
The film is blessed to have a really excellent supporting cast with fine turns from the likes of Robert Davi as a Mafia boss, John Ventimiglia who is perhaps better known as Artie Bucco in The Sopranos and a blink and you will miss it turn from James Franco. All in all this is a very compelling look at a man consumed by violence. It manages to both detail his crimes and his love for his family which I don't doubt was genuine. Some of the most interesting scenes involve the interplay between Richard and his unassuming family. Shannon's performance makes you feel like anything could happen.