It’s amazing what a man is capable of in order to find his way in this vicious world. While I can certainly agree that it might come across as ludicrous to begin with such words in this case, but it is undeniable at this point that Richard Kuklinski’s life cannot be easily pigeon-holed. For those of you who are unable to identify Kuklinski at all, I think one can summarize his persona as one of the most successful and notorious murderers of the 20th century. Note here I refrained from labelling Kuklinski as a serial killer, because he might have been many things, but a serial killer he was definitely not, and “The Iceman” by a young director Ariel Vromen has made a wonderful job of making it clear.
I was never exactly sure what it was that somehow drew my curiosity towards serial killers and, more importantly, their minds. I should also add that it wasn’t the the sensational aspect of their grisly deeds that I find the most interesting, but I think it is fascinating to try and understand how a killer thinks and what it is that compels him to do his ‘work’. Therefore, I have been aware of Richard Kuklinski’s story for quite a while now (if you’re up for it, you can watch the HBO documentaries on Youtube wherein Kuklinski himself would divulge most intimate details about his life as a mob hitman) and hence I found the news of the story of his life being adapted for a film all the more enticing. After all, biopics are most often reserved for portraying lives of people who are interesting in a more conventional way.
“The Iceman” lets us have a closer look at how Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) became what he became, how he led his perfect double life, how he rose through the ranks and gained notoriety and how the house of cards he so meticulously built finally crumbled down. Quite fortunately, we do not have to follow Kuklinski’s life from cradle to grave (which is the cardinal sin of oh-so-many biographical pieces in my humble opinion), but instead we meet Kuklinski during his first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder) – the soon-to-be woman of his life. From that point onwards, we follow him up until his arrest in 1986. It would seem that his relationship with Deborah and his two daughters (the film makers didn’t include his third child in the picture for some weird reason) constitutes the very spine of the whole story, and understandably so, because they were the only people in the whole world that mattered to him after all.
Kuklinski wasn’t your regular average Joe and he certainly didn’t belong in the ‘privileged’ crowd. A son of an abusive Pole and an obsessively religious Irish mother (who actually believed that sparing the rod spoils the child) didn’t get the smoothest start into adulthood. With only elementary education his employment prospects looked particularly grim, so it did not take him long to work for the local kingpin Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). What started out as a menial job in pirating pornography, quickly turned into something more, as Demeo immediately noticed Kuklinski’s ruthless stone-cold character and put it to good use. Mind you that Kuklinski wasn’t somebody who would say ‘no’ – he wanted to ensure his family’s well-being at all cost. Porn-pirate to enforcer, enforcer to hitman… Snowballing towards his inevitable end…
Now, as I already mentioned, “The Iceman” is definitely not a regular biopic and shouldn’t be really perceived as such. It doesn’t retain the bog standard story arc, in which you’d normally expect the character to rise and fall, only to rise again in the uplifting fashion, but “The Iceman’s” arc is almost perfectly parabolic instead that ends on a moralistic note, so that we don’t get any crazy idea that the film would glorify Kuklinski’s life in any way. I think it is rather clear from the get-go that “The Iceman” is not supposed to build Kuklinski a monument, but it tries to peek behind the curtain and expose him a little more. I mean, he was undeniably a monster, but the film does manage to show that every monster would have a story to tell and behind the claws and razor-sharp teeth there’s flesh and blood.
And this is where the fantastic Michael Shannon comes into the frame. You should understand that at this point – after what I’ve seen – I could write sonnets about his portrayal of The Iceman and thanks to him, “The Iceman” has landed in my ‘top 3’ for this year so far. Indubitably, Shannon’s demeanour plays very well into his acting and he has managed to explore Kuklinski’s persona and empower it with minimalistic, cold and calculated acting. I just loved how Shannon’s character was only deceptively shallow and carved in stone and upon closer imagination was bursting with life and emotions hidden from the light of day. By the way, did you know that Kuklinski’s nickname ”The Iceman” did not originate from his cold and lifeless demeanour? Initially, the media coined this term, because Kuklinski used to freeze the bodies of his victims in order to confuse the forensic investigators. The fact he kept everything close to his chest and never showed emotions played into his creepy image quite incidentally, but in the end – extremely precisely.
Michael Shannon has succeeded in creating a multi-faceted three-dimensional character that exudes mystery and in itself was a riddle to solve by the viewer. His performance has made it impossible to further pigeon-hole Kuklinski together with Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Oh, no… he was a different kind of monster. A closer look at Shannon’s character allows the viewer to speculate on what Kuklinski was really hiding behind that mask of his. Between the idiosyncratic mannerisms, nefarious nerve twitches, brutally revealing flashbacks, disrespect to death, bottled-up rage, violent temper, unbelievable affection to his family, and the zealous devotion to concealing his true life of murderer for hire Shannon’s Kuklinski emerges as much more than just a hitman that claimed hundreds of human lives. The film does not allow the viewer to feel sorry for Kuklinski, but strips him off any supernatural qualities – after all, he was a man… Not a monster, not an incarnation of Satan, but a man who made a choice in his life and paid the price for it in the end. More importantly, Kuklinski was a man shaped by his past, but who also tried (and failed) to circumnavigate his inevitable doom.
When all is said and done, “The Iceman” is pretty much a one man show and I do not mean it in a negative sense. The story was maybe a bit erratic at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it was not pivotal to the film as a whole. I would even go as far as to say the story was only auxiliary to bring to the light the intricacies of Kuklinski’s character – and on that level it was simply perfect, thanks to Shannon’s powerhouse performance and Ryder’s very solid second violins. I don’t really think I could call “The Iceman” an anatomy of evil, or something equally pompous, but it does put a notorious character like Richard Kuklinski in a slightly different light that undeniably helps in understanding where monsters come from and how they hide in plain sight. Let’s not forget there are hundreds if not thousands of demons wandering the streets at any given moment and spotting them is not the easiest of tasks – after all they are masters of mimicry…