I was a bit surprised to find myself bored stiff about halfway through this one – on paper, I’d been quite looking forward to it. Michael Shannon is one of my favourite actors at the moment and the thought of him doing mafia contract killer seemed a perfect match. Plus there’s a strong cast: Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans (not the ginger one), James Franco and the tall bloke from Friends for comedy value. But in fact it’s a fairly standard period piece set in the 70s and 80s with appropriately dreadful facial hair. I know the facial hair is accurate, I have a photo of my dad in the 70s with David Schwimmer’s exact moustache.
So what’s wrong? It’s a true story: Kuklinski (Shannon) was a psychopathic killer who worked for a low-level mobster in New Jersey (Liotta, phoning his performance in from home while putting on eyeliner). He murdered over 100 people before he was caught (maybe as many as 250), which surprised his wife and daughters who knew he was a bit naughty but didn’t worry too much about it because they had a nice house.
In a Q&A after the screening, Shannon said he’d picked up a lot from the outtakes from a series of HBO interviews with Kuklinski – still available on YouTube and as creepy as you imagine they might be. The most telling part, and the reason I think the film falls flat, is when in some of the unused footage the interviewer tries to get a bit more insight into Kuklinski’s character by pushing him to talk about what he did when he wasn’t out murdering. All he could say was that he liked to sit by the fire in his armchair. And the problem with making a film about a rather dull bad man is that it ends up being equally dull. Yes, there’s the standard flashback of his mother beating him, and we learn a little from his brother (an almost unrecognisable Stephen Dorff) about some unpleasantness at school. But both felt a bit bolted on – as if director Ariel Vromen suddenly realised he needed a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak.
It’s a shame, because the performances could have lifted this above most serial killer/wiseguy efforts. On the plus side, Shannon did a fabulous Q&A and I still love him but hopefully next time he’ll have a bit more to do than look murderously peeved (he’s about to work with Jeff Nichols again so my hopes are high).