The Iceman (2012)
“Loving husband. Devoted father. Ruthless killer.”
Director: Ariel Vroman
Cast: Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, James Franco
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.
Enjoyment of a ‘based on a true story’ movie like The Iceman should always be tempered by how far the movie departs from the truth of the story on which it is based, and while Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman provides us with an absorbing exploration into the disturbed mind of a professional hitman, it strays far enough from reality for some to feel just a little cheated. The Iceman tells the story of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon, giving a towering performance), an emotionless killer who graduated from dubbing porn movies for the mob to killing to order for them, and it kind of asks you to admire a man who works so hard to prevent the dirty nature of his work from intruding on his idyllic family life.
The movie opens in 1964, when Kuklinski is working in that cheap dubbing studio and hesitantly wooing Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder). One night after work, while playing pool with his buddies, a man with whom he’s playing for money insults Deborah. Rather than losing his cool, Kuklinski wins his game and then coldly intimidates the other guy into paying the money he owes. Later, we see the man drunkenly climbing into his car, and while he fumbles with the controls, Kuklinski climbs in and cuts his throat. He does it smoothly, and then walks slowly away even as people emerge from the back of the pool hall where the murder has taken place, and that little vignette pretty much tells us all we need to know about what makes him such a prime candidate for mob hitman. He doesn’t lose his nerve, and he doesn’t lose his cool, and although he clearly has no sense of proportion when it comes to personal slights, he doesn’t kill for kicks.
When there’s a foul up at the dubbing studio, Kuklinski comes to the attention of mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who is so impressed by the way in which he handles himself in the face of intimidation that he later offers him the opportunity to become an enforcer when the porn dubbing studio is closed down. All Kuklinski has to do is kill an innocent wino and he’s in. Naturally, he passes with flying colours, and so begins a decade of increasing prosperity during which he murders dozens of men on demand. He explains away his increasing wealth to his now-wife Deborah and their two daughters by maintaining the pretence of working in currency exchange. However, Kuklinski’s status comes under threat during an apparently straightforward hit for Demeo when he allows a teenage girl who witnesses the assassination to survive because he refuses to kill children or women. His mercy comes to Demeo’s attention via Robert ‘Mr Freezy’ Pronge (Chris Evans), whom Demeo also hired to ensure the hit was carried out, and Kuklinski finds himself not only out of Demeo’s trusted circle but forbidden by the mob boss from working for anyone else.
The veracity of Vromen’s account of the career of Richard Kuklinski (which he co-wrote with Morgan Land) is doubly doubtful, firstly because he omits many of the less savoury aspects of the man’s nature. The real Kuklinski wasn’t a man who drifted into contract killing — he was already working as a hitman when Demeo offered him a job, and the man he killed to prove his worth was a random dog-walker. While he was apparently a good father to his daughters, he regularly beat and abused his wife — something which is glossed over completely in the movie. The second reason to doubt Vromen’s account is due to the fact that, following his imprisonment, Kuklinski became a shameless publicity seeker who was renowned for embellishing, and even fabricating, the colourful stories he told of his life and career. Many of his accounts conflicted with those given by fellow mobsters, so that the line between truth and fiction becomes impossibly blurred.
Nevertheless, The Iceman does provide great entertainment, and raises the question of how well a psychologically disturbed individual can integrate with mainstream society if his murderous instincts are channelled into the needs of a subset of society (i.e. the criminal underworld) to which his peculiar skills can be put to profitable use. It’s noticeable that Kuklinski soon begins to unravel when he’s forbidden to kill — this is the only time in the movie when he comes close to threatening his wife with violence — and while some of this strain might be due to financial pressure, there’s also the likelihood that he’s struggling with his urge to murder, and we’re left to wonder whether Kuklinski would have one day become a serial killer had he not fallen in with the mob.
For a movie made on a budget of around $10 million, The Iceman does surprisingly well at convincingly recreating the 1960s to the 1980s, and is shot in a crisp, clean style by Bobby Bukowski. Given the Mafia setting, there’s inevitably a feel of Scorsese about the movie, particularly with the welcome presence of Ray Liotta, who of course played Henry Hill in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Needless to say, The Iceman is no Goodfellas but it’s a worthy descendant. The narrative isn’t always as coherent as it might have been, but other than that, The Iceman is well worth a watch — if taken with a pinch of salt…