Synopsis: The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters have any clue about his real profession.
Stars: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny Abeckaser, Stephen Dorff, James Franco
Director: Ariel Vroman
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: While everyone is all abuzz about the Scorsese-lite 70’s crime drama American Hustle, there was another true crime film released in 2013 that featured another impressive cast list decked out in period attire – and for my money it winds up dancing circles around the overlong Hustle.
Michael Shannon (Man of Steel) leads the parade of familiar faces masquerading behind wigs and porn ‘staches as Richard Kuklinski, a New Jersey family man that leads a double life as a hardened contract killer. The film follows Kuklinski over three decades as he marries his sweetheart (Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie, Homefront), gets wrapped up in shady dealings with Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), and offs a formidable amount of character actors. Kuklinski treated his work like any other 9 to 5 job; he shows up for an assignment, dispatches an unlucky soul, and makes it back in time to have dinner in suburbia with his wife and two daughters.
Eventually given the name The Iceman because of his habit of freezing his victims for later disposal, he also earns the moniker for his unwavering dedication to his role. You see, this work puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of his family so anyone getting in the way of that can’t be let off with merely a warning. The film doesn’t glorify the violence enacted by Kuklinski but doesn’t shy away from showing the bullets to the head.
When your lead is someone we’re not supposed to feel sympathy for, casting is everything. You need an actor that can play a duality that makes you understand his rationale for his proceedings while condemning it at the same time. Shannon is the perfect fit for this type of role and the actor becomes one with the character in frightening ways.
He’s matched well by the ageless Ryder, slowly advancing her comeback after taking a few years away from the lights of Hollywood. Her Jersey housewife is no Carmela Soprano; she’s clueless to her husband’s second life but also isn’t naïve enough to think that their quaint life is the picture of perfection. Her concerns are more about her marriage and family than anything her husband has going on the side.
Popping up in smaller roles are Chris Evans (Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Robert Davi (Licence to Kill), James Franco (This is the End, Lovelace), Stephen Dorff, and David Schwimmer. All are solid performers that serve their purpose in giving Shannon room to breathe life into a villainous anti-hero in director Ariel Vroman’s hard-boiled drama.
While the film is set over a large time period, it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine the events taking place in the present. Vroman gives his film a timeless feel, which winds up adding to its authenticity. The production design is handled with a lighter touch than most period films so rather than pounding our eardrums with endless tunes of the era or dressing our actors in excessively retro costumes there are hints here and there about where we are in history.
While audiences and googly-eyed critics may be doing the Hustle at your local cinema, fire up The Iceman (available on Netflix) and watch how to make a solid character study that’s more about performance than production.