Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) opens the film with his aged, bearded face filling the dark screen. He is imprisoned, but for what, we don't know yet. He's fumbling for words to say, unable to put into words what he is feeling. It is this theme of being unable to express himself that ties the film's many threads together into one overall arc.
Shortly after being told the fate of Kuklinski, we meet his future wife, Deborah (Ryder), and get a glimpse at what their life will be like. She wants someone to take care of her, and she doesn't normally go on blind dates. They eat at a restaurant and share some talk about themselves. Richard admits that he's not much of a talker, but Deborah doesn't mind. Soon we see that they've married and had their first daughter. But things are not completely rosy, since it is revealed that Richard is leading a double life.
Unbeknownst to Deborah, Richard works for a mob family that dabbles in illegal goods and loan sharking. (She thinks he works as a currency exchanger) Kuklinski works as an underground porn bootlegger, prepping the prints and selling them to customers. It is Kuklinski's bad fortune, or good luck - depending on how you look at it, that he is confronted by the leader of the family, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), and told that his position is being eliminated. However, he does have a second chance at a different kind of job. After having his loyalty to the Demeo's tested, and confirming his ability to follow orders without second-guessing, Richard is enlisted as a murder-for-hire hitman. The money rolls in quickly and we see what a cold-blooded killer the family man can be when nobody's looking. Still, his family is clueless about where Richard goes during the day, content that he doesn't talk about his job and is generally a silent figure.
At one point in the film he recites a small speech during his daughter's sixteenth birthday party, written on a piece of stationery. The room claps enthusiastically, with tears in their eyes, and his daughter comes over and embraces him, saying, "I didn't know you had it in you." Therein lies the great emotional turmoil of the film. None of the characters realize that Richard is capable of expressing emotion because he hides behind a mask of ice-cold placidity. Even with a gun held to his face, his employer, Demeo, remarks, "Don't you have anything you love? Why do you act as if you don't give a shit what happens to you?" The audience wonders as well, but it's an answer that we won't get beneath all the layers of masculine brawniness Richard's built up over the years. Like so many other criminals behind bars, the reasoning behind Kuklinski's actions may never completely be understood or revealed. The motivation, however, is always the money.
Despite the heartless killings that Kuklinski committed, he did feel emotions. He feared being unable to provide the life of luxury that his wife so admired. He feared that his daughters would be targets of the men he was working against. He also, I believe, felt love for his family, but the great tragedy is that he was ignorant of how to express that love. It's as if in the whirl of trying to provide all the material possessions that his wife and daughters enjoyed, Kuklinski overlooked the one thing that was irreplaceable to his family, and that was the time spent with them as a part of the family unit. As Ryder exclaims during a moment alone at the pivotal birthday party, "You're so full of shit, Ritchie. I'm going down to the party, and you should come with me." Of course she's right. He is filled with emotional childhood memories that he can't escape, involving a Catholic upbringing, and constant beatings by his mother. His family deserves better than what he grew up with, so he provides every comfort he can for them. However, the curtain over his murderous job can only be draped for so long before it is pulled back and his family's eyes opened.
Filling out the secondary roles is a stellar cast that includes a spot-on performance by Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy, a hitman masquerading as an ice cream truck driver; James Franco as Marty Freeman, in a scene that showcases Kuklinski's thoughts about his Catholic upbringing; and surprisingly, David Schwimmer, almost unrecognizable as Josh Rosenthal, the "adopted" son of Roy Demeo. There is always something going on between all of these characters that keeps the tension in check. I could barely look away, and wouldn't even leave my seat to go grab concessions for fear of missing out on a character's demise.
In the end, the real victims are Kuklinski's family. They escape neither physically nor emotionally. I was left wondering what life would have been like if Kuklinski had turned away from the hitman job. Would he still be living with his family, enjoying old age with his wife and seeing his grandchildren as they started their lives? We'll never know. As he sits in his cell for two life sentences he struggles to apologize. Tears well in his eyes, and he reveals something that we knew the entire time: he's afraid of letting others see his emotions. This was a film about a broken man that resonated with me long after I left the cinema.