He cometh and he killeth, too: “The Iceman”

October 10, 2013


Richard Kuklinski, the titular Iceman of Ariel Vromen’s film, is a stone cold killer in a way that pushes that description as close to the literal as is humanly possible. He was a loving husband and father, but also a mainline psychopath who is believed to have killed over 100 people, and felt not a thing about it—not remorse, excitement, or even satisfaction. He killed people the way one flicks a light switch when they enter a room: just an act without any meaning attached to it. Suffice it to say, there’ll never be an FX series featuring this guy as another sympathetic/repulsive anti-hero. To his credit, Vromen—who co-wrote and directed this film—does the only logical thing you can do with a character like Kuklinski: he treats him like the monster from a horror movie.

The Iceman begins in the early ‘60s not with a moment of violence that might plant the seeds of Kuklinski’s career as the Grim Reaper’s subcontractor, but on a date. It’s a sweetly awkward affair as Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) tries to make halting conversation with local girl, Deborah (Winona Ryder). He’s earnest, but inarticulate, and she fills in the gaps nicely with her Joisy-accented, blue-collar effervescence. It’s a good date, which will lead to marriage, family, and the only thing that might define Kuklinski as an actual human being.

He tells Deborah that he’s a currency trader, when, in fact, he’s dubbing porno movies for a local gangster, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). Kuklinski is way down on the food chain, but when a business screw-up leads to a personal warning/beating by DeMeo and his thugs, he sees some value in the massive bulk and impenetrable stoicism of this guy. After a quick initiation, wherein Kuklinski dispatches a bum with supreme care and efficiency, he starts doing jobs for DeMeo.

For a few years, this means relative stability and a regular cashflow, which helps Kuklinski move his growing family into a solid blue collar strata of middle class comfort (there was a time when that actually existed–kids, ask your parents). It also causes him to cross paths with a more sophisticated, but no less professional killer named Robert Pronge (Chris Evans—about as far from Captain America as is humanly possible), but known as Mr. Freezy due to the ice cream truck he operates out of and utilizes for body storage and transport (I’m pretty sure Dexter’s first season “Ice Truck Killer” took this as inspiration).

This all comes to a dead stop when DeMeo inadvertently finds himself on the wrong side of both the New York mob and the Columbian cartels. He needs to lay low, and to that end, he basically puts Kuklinski in limbo. Essentially laid off, Kuklinski teams up with Freezy, taking freelance hits and putting him in danger of bringing the mob down on their operation. If you think that this will provide an opportunity for The Iceman to resemble something like a conventional thriller wherein we root for the antihero to protect his family from the evil gangsters, well you’d be wrong. We sure do hope that nothing bad happens to Kuklinski’s family, but that’s about as far as our sympathy goes.

The Iceman is a nasty piece of work. The film itself is not brutal—Vroman keeps a clinical detachment from what’s happening onscreen and doesn’t at all glamorize Kuklinski’s kills—but it’s unafraid of plunging us into a world of unremitting evil. The gangsters may be businessmen, but they have moral compunctions about utilizing these two psychopaths. When they come to loggerheads with their wayward employees, the conflict has no moral or ethical core—it’s just a matter of money.

Vroman’s film, scored to a menacing synth soundtrack, is basically a Friday the 13th movie, in which we follow Jason Voorhees about his day. Front and center in nearly every scene is Michael Shannon, who is simply…well, I’m just going to say it, Michael Shannon makes everything better. As Kuklinski he plays a murderous cypher, burying almost any trace of humanity until the odd moment it spills out, giving us a glimpse of an inner-life that leaves us more baffled than we were before.  He is never less than commanding onscreen, yet stubbornly never lets us sympathize, empathize, or even relate to this character. It’s a nigh-impossible task for an actor, but he carries it off and makes this movie work.

But there really aren’t any bad performances in this movie. Ryder makes her Deborah a palpably grounded, authentic character, who shares a bond with Kuklinski built on the fact that she thinks his most inauthentic facet is the sum of his personality. Liotta and Evans both take on their roles with consummate professionalism, slipping into these characters’ skins and stubbornly refusing to let their movie-star personas peek out even once.

The Iceman isn’t a pleasant movie, but it’s an intensely watchable one. It’s a movie featuring some great craftsmanship in its every scene. It’s also such a raw, unflinching look at the moral bankruptcy of organized crime that Martin Scorcese must have slinked out of the theater. Mostly, though, it demythologizes the favorite Hollywood archetype of the professional killer, and shows it for the unmitigated terror that it is.

Incidentally, this is most I’ve written the name “Kuklinski” since the 8th grade.

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