While Richard Kuklinski worked as a contract killer for the Mafia, he was responsible for more than 100 hits. All of this sounds rather clinical. Kuklinski, known as “the Pollack,” wasn’t a “use a gun and silencer” kind of guy. No, he was pretty “creative” when it came to taking out the trash. Guns, ice picks, crossbows, chain saws, remote-controlled toy cars with a bomb, and cyanide administered by spray were all employed. He also enjoyed torturing his victims. Kuklinski was a psychopath through and through, and I’ve been fascinated with the more than 6-foot-tall, 300-pound serial killer ever since I saw the HBO documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer a long time ago in a criminal justice class.
When word surfaced awhile back that a docu-drama of his life was being made – with the equally imposing Michael Shannon in the lead – well, that was it. I’ve had my eye out ever since. If I remember correctly, the film came out, very briefly, in Omaha at AMC Theatres. Because I missed that screening window, I searched for the film on my trusty Netflix, which had it listed as Save. After I added it, it became “unavailable.” Wondering what was going on with the film, I searched for it on Amazon, and got a new release date. Just as I was going to pre-purchase it, Netflix miraculously made it available again. It came out last Tuesday.
Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen, who also directs, The Iceman covers about 20 years of Kuklinski’s life, from his first date with his soon-to-be bride Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) to his arrest by ATF agents outside of his home. In-between these events, we watch Kuklinski as he offs a lot of people in a lot of very inventive brutal ways. I say “inventive,” because later in his “career” he met up and partnered with another psychopath named Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) – based on real-life hitman Robert Pronge, aka “Mister Softee,” named because he drove an ice cream truck to avoid detection– who taught Kuklinski about the efficacies of cyanide and freezing his victims so as to obscure the time of death. (In the film, Mr. Freezy also dismembers the bodies.) Not that the film is an unrelenting bloodbath. Kuklinski is portrayed as a devoted husband and father to two daughters, and we get to see moments of “tenderness” between him and his family.
Purists might balk at how “nice” Kuklinski comes off in The Iceman. Although it hints at his violent past – his first kill was when he was 14, and he enjoyed torturing animals – it doesn’t really demonstrate the violence that his widow claims occurred in the household. In interviews, she has admitted that she stayed in the marriage out of fear, and that her husband’s moods vacillated from romantic to brutally vicious. Other than one menacing scene, the feature makes him look like a man who was rabidly protective of his family; that his violence was always aimed outside of the home. Not true.
Because I don’t expect “based on the life of …” films to be very accurate – and I’m always shocked when they are – I can let these discrepancies slide. I mean, if I want accuracy, I will watch a documentary or read a non-fiction book. The joy of watching The Iceman comes from watching the brilliant Michael Shannon at work. Someone give him an Oscar for this film, please. Physically, he’s Paul Bunyan-sized, standing nearly a foot above some of his co-stars; but even if he weren’t that much taller, his personality dominates everyone in frame. A few times, his employers threaten Kuklinski, and while they were doing this I kept squirming, thinking “are you idiots or something?” (Yes, they kind of were.) I felt very uncomfortable. And yet, I also found myself very “attracted” to his character. On the surface, he was, as they say, ice. When a gun was shoved in his face, he didn’t flinch or blink. Nothing. And killing was just a job. One at which he was incredibly efficient and proficient. But thanks to Shannon’s amazing performance, you can see the wheels spinning; the emotion being held in check. It was a bit like watching an alligator, snake, or spider. The eyes. Just watch his eyes in this film. I am in such awe of this man. He really makes you want to learn more about Kuklinski.
Ryder has never been a favorite of mine, but still, I have to give it to her, she’s pretty good in this film. And what a timeless beauty. Furthermore, because she’s so petite, her size only serves to make Shannon look that much more domineering. Until the day he retires, Ray Liotta will always be cast as a Mafia something. Here, he plays Roy Demeo, the man who recognizes the potential in Kuklinski. Liotta sadly has been slumming in a lot of B-films lately, so it’s wonderful to see him pop up in gems like The Iceman and Killing Them Softly, another one of my favorites this year. If you have been wondering whatever became of David Schwimmer, well here is your answer: He’s almost unrecognizable in this film, playing slimeball Josh Rosenthal, a Jewish orphan who was found on the streets by Demeo and raised as his surrogate son. He’s probably the oddest casting choice in The Iceman. As if James Franco needed more projects, he has a cameo here as a porn director. (I read that he was supposed to play Mr. Freezy; glad he opted for something more suitable to his “skills.”)
Another B-film regular, Stephen Dorff makes the most of his screen time as Joey Kuklinski, Richard’s homicidal and incarcerated brother. And my absolute favorite performance in the film, next to Shannon’s of course, belongs to Evans. With his long, stringy, greasy hair; glasses, and facial hair, he’s nearly unrecognizable. He plays Mr. Freezy as a crazy genius; someone who probably loves his job blowing things up and dismembering his victims. I have an odd sense of humor, so he had me chuckling a few times. If you only know Evans as Captain America or Johnny Storm, please expand your horizons. I know that it’s difficult to get beyond his pin-up buff and gorgeous looks, but trust me, this guy has some serious acting chops. Check him out in Sunshine (2007), one of my favorite sci-fi films; The Losers (2010), a horrible film but he’s great in it; and especially Puncture (2011), in which he plays an addiction-addled lawyer. I’m really looking forward to seeing him in Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, if the Weinstein Company doesn’t completely bugger it up.
Back to Shannon, if you are a fan, this is a must-see. But then, most of his films are. If you don’t know his work, his best are Revolutionary Road (2008), his character is awesome; Take Shelter (2011), and Mud (2012), another one of my faves this year. Oh, and I loved him as General Zod in Man of Steel, but then I also loved that film. And if you want a real chuckle, go on YouTube, and look for him reading the “Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter.” I don’t know how many times I have watched that. It never gets old.
I’m a true crime aficionado, so The Iceman was just what I needed. It finally ended my streak of bad films. Parts of it made me think of Showtime’s Dexter, which, I’m still in the process of rewatching from the beginning – I’m nearly done with season five – and other parts reminded me of another really great, off-the-radar, film that I loved, and had to get on DVD – Kill the Irishman (2011). It, too, is a “based on the life of …” biopic, and it tells the story of Danny Greene, an Irishman who worked for the Mafia during the 1970s. What was interesting about him was that they tried again and again to kill him, and they had one hell of a time doing it. They even blew up his house while he was in bed, and he survived. Good stuff made even better by its solid cast: Ray Stevenson in the titular role, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Vinnie Jones, Robert Davi (who plays a heavy in The Iceman), and so many more.
I’ll be buying The Iceman on DVD, and when I get it, I’ll have a double feature with Kill the Irishman. Restores my faith in cinema. But not necessarily humanity.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.