Greetings again from the darkness. When asked to explain the appeal, many fans of Western movies note how the clear division of good and bad, and right and wrong, allows for easy identification of those to root for, or even admire. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli muddies the water with this one, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, and keeping us guessing until the end.
The film opens in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, a mere seventeen years after the Land Rush of 1889. The farmer we meet, Henry McCarty (a perfectly chosen name) may or may not have been a ‘sooner’, but he admits to his son that the idea of free land is what drove him to settle here, on the plot next to his deceased wife’s brother Al (Trace Adkins). Tim Blake Nelson is superb in the role, and plays Henry as a man with deep, and likely dark secrets. The land is challenging to work and he expends energy farming as well as protecting his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), a typical whiny teenager with little regard for adult struggles. Wyatt is anxious to escape the structure and limitations of life with dad.
Breaking a long string of days where nothing much happens for Henry and Wyatt, an injured man with a satchel full of cash is discovered on their land. Henry patches up the gunshot wound, and puts the unconscious man in bed, albeit with ropes binding him to the frame – one of the glimpses of Henry cluing us to waters that run much deeper than we’d typically expect for a farmer in the middle of nowhere. When the man awakens, he claims to be Sheriff Curry (Scott Haze) and that the three men chasing him are the bad guys. The dilemma for Henry is heightened in that he’s not an inherently trusting fellow, and the Sheriff badge is actually on one the vest of those three men, Ketchum (a fun turn from Stephen Dorff).
The verbal exchanges between Henry and Ketchum are oratory poetry, and it makes for a juicy and tension-packed chain of events. We are left to deduce which of the men – Henry, Curry, and Ketchum – are who they say they are. It’s a game of Clue featuring rifles, holsters, and horses. Cinematographer John Matysiak does a nice job with a wide-range of shots: outdoors, in the cabin, the big shootout, and even a doorway shot as a tribute to John Ford.
The two twists are what really made this click for me. And one of them is quite a whopper. The suspense generated by the situation is certainly enhanced by the fancy verbal sparring, including a terrific line from Henry when asked about his background: “Many vocations, some more marginal than others.” But it really comes down to us as viewers, along with Henry, attempting to discern the good guys from the bad, and constantly asking ourselves … who do we trust? Mysteries are fun, especially when a good old-fashioned shootout is included, and the film’s big reveal turns out to be etched in western lore.
Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatizations are at their best when actual footage of the subject or event doesn’t exist. They can be an effective way to highlight a particularly interesting story or person with details we might not otherwise access. Richard Kuklinski‘s story is fascinating and frightening. He is known as the mob’s most prolific hit-man/contract killer. Writer/director Arial Vromen has adapted Anthony Bruno‘s novel for the screen, and wisely cast Michael Shannon in the lead. It makes a nice companion piece to the chilling 1992 documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.
The movie is dominated by the hulking presence of Shannon as Richard Kuklinski. Shannon is no match for the physical size of Kuklinski, but his movements and the camera angles capture the powerful and imposing monster that he was. If you are unfamiliar with Kuklinski’s story, he killed somewhere between 100-250 people. His missions were carried forth in cold-blooded, heartless and widely disparate manners. Additionally, he often dismembered his victims and froze bodies and parts to prevent the actual time of death from being established. He was good at his job, though hardly a good guy. But wait! Not so fast …
Kuklinski was also a husband a father of two daughters who made up what appeared to be a lovely, normal family in suburban New Jersey. This guy had an internal switch he flipped from the street to the dining room table. When he was captured, his wife and daughter claimed they had no clue what he did for a living (he had told them he was in Finance). Sure, they admitted to his having a wild temper and even threatening his wife a few times, but they never once considered that he was a cold-blooded killer by day and neighborly barbecue dad on weekends. The photo at left is an actual family photo of the real Kuklinski family.
Winona Ryder plays Deborah, Kuklinski’s wife. Before you snicker, you should know that Ryder is exceptional in the role. Her comeback tease in Black Swangave us hope she had returned to form, and with this turn displays the talent we always knew was there. The always dependable and creepy Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Roy Demeo, the mobster for whom Kuklinski worked. The scenes with Shannon and Liotta together are bone-chillingly frightening. Chris Evans (light years from Captain America) plays fellow hit-man Robert Prongay aka “Mr Freezy”. Kuklinski credits Prongay with valuable insight into poison and disposal of bodies. It’s heart-warming to see that even contract killers have support groups. Other fine acting comes courtesy of David Schwimmeras smarmy Josh (Demeo’s right hand man), Robert Davi (as Leonard Marks. Demeo’s link to the family head), James Franco (as one of the hits), and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother Joey.
Childhood flashbacks give us the table-setting necessary to understand the balance of nature v nurture in the Kuklinski household. Still, no matter how much abuse or misery one has a child, it’s difficult to comprehend the stoic evil that possessed Kuklinski. And to be clear, Michael Shannon’s performance is his best yet … and that is saying a great deal. He has become one of the most interesting actors – one who can take the lead as he does here and in Take Shelter, or as a scene-stealing supporter in Revolutionary Road, Mud and the upcoming Man of Steel(as General Zod). He’s not a flashy actor, just an enormously talented one.
Vromen captures the gritty feel of the nearly three decades of “family” life in a manner that reminds of Kill the Irishmen… the Ray Stevenson take on Danny Greene. The atmosphere and inner turmoil are similar, but there is no comparison to the Kuklinski evil. Should you doubt this, I would highly recommend the documentary previously mentioned. Watching the actual dead eyes of the real Richard Kuklinski as he talks about his life is beyond horrifying.
*NOTE: the real Kuklinski claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. His story was unable to verified because … you got it … he was very good at his job.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF:you are intrigued by the power of “family” life and how the members handled problems OR you are familiar with Kuklinski and want a film that captures the essence of the monster and the times (bad clothes and facial hair).
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: violence, even when based on true stories, is not your cup of tea
Greetings again from the darkness. My reaction to this film is that no way it gets made and no way anyone would care … unless Sophia Coppola was involved. With her involvement, our approach as a viewer is totally different. She has lived this life and, more importantly, observed this life since she was an infant. She captures details and minutiae that no other writer or director would even sense.
Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a very successful movie star who is holed up at the infamous Château Marmont. This is the Hollywood retreat where celebs go to disappear for awhile. Marco has gone a step beyond retreat. He is lost. Lost as a person. Even his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning, can’t “find” him. He dutifully fulfills his movie star responsibilities: press junkets, photography sessions, awards ceremonies, etc. He plays video games with his daughter with the same emotion that he poses for pictures or answers questions from reporters. He is a shell of a man and he is beginning to see that himself.
The film displays all the trappings of stardom and shows that no stream of Ferrari’s, strippers, fans, supermodels, international trips or pile of money can bring personal fulfillment. The man that has everything can still have nothing. Sound a bit depressing? Well it is. But it’s also a nice little peek behind the celebrity curtain. The film could even be a fun parlor game with all the relatives of famous people who play some minor role … another tip of the cap to Ms. Coppola’s background.
A ride in the elevator with Benecio del Toro (presumably a Marmont guest) is no more substantive than a party in his room filled with beautiful people who just want to be seen … or do what some people do with celebrities. Isolation can happen in plain site and Ms. Coppola has proven herself to be quite the expert with this film and her even better film, Lost in Translation.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like a peek behind the curtain of celebrity and the Chateau Marmont
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slow moving films put you to sleep … don’t pay $10 for a nap!