|Say hullo to my leetle...uh, kolace? Michael Shannon looking not at all like Polish hitman and serial killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman.|
If you've seen the poster for The Iceman, you might not recognize the film's star, Michael Shannon. It looks as though he's been given the Scarface treatment: hair darkened, slicked back, those formidable eyebrows run to jet as well as a particularly bushy and badass goatee. Mr. Shannon's facial hair often grows more fearful and plentiful as the body count rises in The Iceman. But it's not a Latin gangster he's playing in the film. Shanon is actually depicting a man of Polish descent, serial killer and mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, whose real body count will probably never be known with certainty, much as it might have ranged into triple figures.
Just as the resemblance of actor to actual killer is slight, so does this version of Kuklinski's story constitute a more palatable distillation of events in the man's life than full disclosure would involve. The screenplay by director Ariel Vroman and Morgan Land, seems intent on humanizing Kuklinski without romanticizing his exploits That middle ground is achieved more by the prowess of Michael Shannon's presence than anything set forth in Land and Vroman's story or dialog, or by the latter's competent but undistinguished direction. And like any middle ground, one is prone to land without the best of either extremes. So it goes with The Iceman, more by the number - even if that number is indeed a body count - that it should be.
As we meet Richad Kuklinski in the early 1960s, he's presented as a guy simply trying to do his job and live his life. The fact that the job is the copying (bootlegging, perhaps) of pornographic films for the mafia, makes those simple aspirations more complicated than the average guy trying to make a go of it in Newark, New Jersey. On a first date with his eventual wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), Kuklinski answers the inevitable "what do yo do for a living" question by saying that he dubs Disney films. His favorite? Cinderella, of course. Shannon gives his baritone a little extra room as the killer, letting it emanate with a broad, but controlled rumble. On that first date with Deborah, he finally manages to coax a long-intended compliment through the lower reaches of those vocal chords and tell her, "You're a prettier version of Natalie Wood."
For her part, Ms. Ryder tends to speak in sidelong whispers as the sweet, if gullible Deborah. Facial gestures, too, are meek and seemingly cast from angles. Just as one must always forget about how the real people in any "based upon" story might look, some slack has to be cut when actors are supposed to age twenty years or more over the course of a film. Sitting across from Kuklinski in a dinner on that first date, dressed in a kind of jumper, Ryder doesn't convince as the girl she's supposed to be. But there is something in her air of fragility which serves the character well as she ages and the circumstances of her life grow more dire. Unfortunately, Ryder's performance, like The Iceman in general, would seem to strive for something searing or exceptional without ever achieving those heights.
The most unsavory - and this is saying quite a lot a lot with Kuklinski - aspect of the killer's life is left out of The Iceman's plot. Of course, there's only so much one can squeeze into the film's 105 minutes. More likely, the task of humanizing a man who was not simply a very accomplished hitman but a predatory serial killer was beyond the reach (or interest) of screenwriters Vroman and Land. Kuklinski, by his own admission, roamed the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in 1950's, hunting and murdering men for sport, more thrilled by the planning his crimes and pursuing his victims than the actual act of killing, which he was able to execute with that proverbial cold blood.
The Iceman certainly does indicate that Kuklinski was more than a man trapped by circumstance into a life of crime and murder. The aftermath of an early pool hall scene when another man is foolish enough to speak ill of Kuklinski's (by then) fiancee, Deborah, shows that the eventual hitman was willing to kill of his own volition if moved to do so. Even more to that point, Kuklinski's family feels the stress when he is basically laid-off by his mafia soldato, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). More than a man restless for something to do, Kuklinski is practically driven mad when he can't do that thing at which he excels - killing other men.
A psychiatrist who spoke to Kuklinski at the Trenton State Prison after he was finally arrested and convicted reached the conclusion that the man known as The Iceman (or, even more unimaginatively, The Polack) was a product of both nature and nurture. In Kuklinski, he saw a man who had the ability to function as a ruthless murderer while simultaneously being a man devoted to his family.
We see ample examples of the conflicted nature in The Iceman. Perhaps the most touching example is Kuklinski's attempt to compose a "Roses are Red" poem for the occasion of his daughter's birthday, his satisfaction at the telling and reception. The nurture - or profound lack thereof - part of the equation is where the script of Vroman and Land Really begins to grind. This occurs at a prison to which Kuklinski has been unhappily summoned by his younger brother, Joey (Stephen Dorff). Seeing that his older brother is none-too-pleased to be there, Joey reminds the family man that he remembers things about his past as damning as his having to reside behind bars, hinting at the torture of animals as a child, among other dark deeds. Later, in a more conciliatory mood, Joey recalls the beatings Richard took as a child – to which the younger brother was not subjected – recalling how his father counted out the lashes of his belt in Polish. While the torture and killing of animals in a childhood that also included abuse at the hands of both parents (one of the Kuklinski boys apparently died as a result of parental beating) does find basis in Richard Kuklinski’s life story, Joey’s alternately angry and compassionate outbursts seem directed as much to fill in the audience as speak to his brother through the plexiglass opening in his jail door.
Dorff as the younger Kuklinski also bears some fearsome period (and perhaps, prison) facial hair. He looks like a man atop whose mouth some blonde little creature perched and died, drooping to either side in what is supposed to be a Fu Manchu. Also working not to be out-performed by his considerable mustache is David Schwimmer as Josh Rosenthal, Roy DeMeo's ever-tracksuited fuckup of an associate. The presence of Schwimmer, Dorff and Ryder all seem attempts at restoring some screen credibility, jump-starting film careers. Perhaps like most every actor, they're happy to be working at all. But none are really able to elevate the shaky material they're given.
Helping matters, and unburdened by fake mustache or beard, is Robert Davi's nice turn as a messenger between the Gambino crime family and DeMeo. As Mr. Freezy, Chris Evans has plenty of hair, but the erstwhile (and future) Captain American, Steve Rogers, does well with his sharp features at least partially concealed as a sort of independent contractor who operates behind the cover of an ice cream truck.
Mr. Freezy (there was in reality a "Mr. Softee") and Kuklinski join forces after the latter has been sent adrift by DeMeo. Their collaboration provides in The Iceman, if not levity, at least a strange leavening. When the two matter-of-factly go about dismembering bodies - sawing limbs as casually as a carpenter might tear through a 2 x 4 for the thousandth time - before disposing or first freezing the evidence, the film approaches black comedy. Kuklinski's tendency to stow corpses in an industrial freezer to conceal the time of death - as opposed to his mere cold-bloodedness - won him his nickname.
Perhaps the most seamless period aspects of The Iceman are present in both the art direction of building and home interiors as well as the exterior shooting. I can't speak to the look of Newark in the 60s or 70s, but the film's location scouts did well in finding streets in Detroit and Shreveport, Louisiana to stand in for time, if not also place.
It is in the oft-contentious exchanges between Kuklinski and DeMeo that The Iceman gains the threatening traction after which it generally just spins. Here both Shannon and Liotta are doing what they're typecast to do. But there's a reason for that, much as it might limit their respective careers. They're like artists who can work within a very limited palette - rather dark, of course - and reveal a seemingly endless number of shadings. Liotta dilates his blue eyes, makes them prominent, lifeless pools and suddenly it doesn't seem like make-believe anymore. Shannon's Kuklinski bears almost no resemblance to other crazy or at least on edge characters he's brought to life on screen elsewhere. If you watch him work in a superior film like Jeff Nichol's Take Shelter, where contrasting moments of tenderness and affability better define the impressively-credible extremes toward the insane to which he animates that troubled man, you get a fuller sense of his range. But if dark is what you need, dark is what he can give you. When his character steps out of his car to face a man whose car he has rear-ended, Shannon does not need the real Kuklinski's fearsome physique - 6'4'' and 300 pounds - to very quickly and powerfully communicate a man whom you do not want to cross.
Mainly a success of acting and art direction, The Iceman is like getting to see a couple of big leaguers swing the bat in a minor league game.