Michael Shannon is both chilling and sympathetic in this based-on-a-true-story crime drama about a hitman with a normal family life. Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) does his day’s work—shooting, poisoning, stabbing, and then dismembering the resulting corpses—and then goes home to the wife and kids. Clearly, this is not normal behavior.
The fascination arises from the fact that Kuklinski effectively keeps his two worlds separate for more than a decade and the even more perverse reality that he loves killing people as much as he loves being a great husband and father. In the parlance of the self-help industry, he has it all.
Kuklinski starts out as a regular working stiff who makes prints of porn films for mob-owned peep shows. A chance encounter with a mobster (Ray Liotta) leads to a horrific confrontation that blossoms into a career as a contract killer.
The mob atmosphere is as taut, vicious and convincing as anything you’d find in a Scorsese picture. This is quite an achievement on the filmmaker’s part, with a great deal of credit going to the cast, which includes Liotta as an anxious mid-lever gangster, Robert Davi as a mob kingpin, David Schwimmer as a hapless drug-dealing schmuck, and Chris Evans, hilarious as a rival killer-for-hire.
Meanwhile, Kuklinski dotes on his loving but firmly incurious wife and two daughters. He’s a caring lover to Deb and an attentive dad, taking his girls on roller skating outings and even writing them crude, heartfelt poems.
Director Ariel Vromen doesn’t reveal the nature of Kuklinski’s pathology all at once. This could be a sound narrative strategy, but, unfortunately, here, it doesn’t pay off.
When we first meet Kuklinski, briefly, he’s an old man in prison. Then he’s taking his future wife Deborah (a very good Winona Ryder) on their first date. Then he’s playing pool in a bar, where a man’s crude insults directed at Deborah send Kuklinski into a murderous rage. We slowly learn what made him who he is, but it’s doled out in such didactic fashion that it all seems too easy—and too easily explained. When the two worlds collide, it’s a shock. And the psychological revelations are too by-the-numbers to be satisfying. Shannon is a wonder, though, shifting from loving warmth to below-zero cold with just a slight change in demeanor.
There’s a hint of the nuance that would have benefited the storytelling in the final section, when Kuklinski, in an offhand, cheerful manner, poisons a cat. But by then, the filmmakers are intent on neatness: They even give Kuklinski a chance to sum himself up. It is wise, however, to distrust such neatness.