Directed By: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Winona Ryder
Tag line: "Loving husband. Devoted father. Ruthless killer"
Trivia: While in prison, Richard Kuklinski claimed to be responsible along with four other men for the kidnap and murder of former Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa on July 30 1975 in a restaurant parking lot in Detroit
In trying to describe 2012’s The Iceman, the story of real-life mob enforcer Richard Kuklinski, several adjectives leap to mind: “haunting” “harrowing” and “powerful”, just to name a few. Yet these words, no matter how appropriate, don’t convey the effect this film had on me. The Iceman is an excellent motion picture, a fascinating glimpse into the life of a psychopath who, despite allegedly killing over 100 people, was a model husband and father. But as good as the movie is, and as strongly as I recommend it, I can’t see myself revisiting it on a regular basis. The Iceman is tremendous, and it also disturbed me deeply.
When we first meet Richard “Richie” Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), its 1964, and he’s on his first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder), the woman he would eventually marry. During that date, he lies to her, telling Deborah he dubs Disney cartoons for a living, when in reality he pirates pornographic films for mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). When Demeo shuts down the porno operation, he offers Richie a different job, one that essentially requires him to kill whoever Demeo says needs killing. Before long, the money comes pouring in, and Richie once again lies to Deborah, telling her he’s making a fortune trading foreign currencies. After years of faithful service, Demeo decides he no longer needs Richie, and orders him to retire. Instead, Richie hooks up with fellow contract killer, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), and goes back to “work”, doing what he does best. Of course, when Demeo finds out Richie disobeyed him, he’s none too happy, and even threatens to hurt Deborah and the couple’s two daughters, Anabel (McKaley Miller) and Betsy (Megan Sherrill). Having spent years hiding his “profession” to protect his family, Richie must now work to ensure that Deborah and the girls are safe. In the process, he makes a few mistakes.
Exploring the differences between the “two” Richard Kuklinski’s: the killer and the family man, is The Iceman’s most intriguing aspect. One moment, Richie is shooting someone and tossing their body into a freezer (he got his nickname “The Iceman” for his tendency to freeze the bodies of those he’s murdered to make it impossible to determine an exact time of death). The next, we join him in his bedroom as he’s making love to Deborah, only to be interrupted by Anabel and Betsy, who ask if they can sleep in their parents’ room. It’s one of several quaint domestic scenes scattered throughout The iceman, most of which are immediately followed by moments of horror and brutality.
Which brings me back to the effect The iceman had on me personally. It’s not that I haven’t seen movies of this sort before; in fact, I’ve seen plenty, both gang-related (Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco) and those featuring real-life serial killers (Zodiac, Monster). Yet what I couldn’t understand was why The iceman made me sympathize with a man I should have abhorred. Well after it ended, I found myself turning the film over and over in my mind; why did I care about this guy? Did Michael Shannon play the character sympathetically? To a degree, perhaps, but not overly so (Richie was, in almost every scene, the most frightening person in the room). Ultimately, it came down to his motivations: everything Richie Kuklinski did (according to the movie, anyway) stemmed from a deep love for his wife and children, and his wanting to give them the best life he possibly could. Does this justify murder? Hell no! But from the brief glimpses we’re given of Kuklinski’s past: his prison meeting with his brother, Joey (played by Stephen Dorff), who recounts violent incidents from Richie’s childhood, and an early scene, where Richie cuts the throat of a guy who insulted Deborah, it’s clear that, before he hooked up with the mob, Richard Kuklinski was already a cold-blooded killer. That he loved three people, and channeled his murderous tendencies into a career that provided for them, made him seem more “human”, something Richard Kuklinski himself might have never thought possible.
I know how naïve I sound, and that none of the above can excuse Kuklinski’s actions. Yet this was my honest reaction to the film, and in the end titles, when we learn what happened to the real Richard Kuklinski following his 1986 arrest, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
Yes… I felt sorry for a monster.