What’s with our obsession with people, usually men, who do very bad things and the current trend for trying to make us sympathize with them, serial killers especially?
Say what you want about the moral ambiguity of the age in which we live, but for or every Zodiac that makes a game of tracking down the monster, there’s a Badlands that romanticizes their exploits or a Seven Psychopaths making them figures of fun. The longest running prime-time drama currently on American TV is probably Dexter in which Michael C. Hall attempts (and mostly succeeds) in making us care about a man whose murderous ways get more and more out of control with each passing season. Similarly, The Sopranos, widely regarded as the greatest TV show of all time, is all about another confirmed sociopath, mob boss Tony Soprano.
These are not, for the most part, characters that undergo great change: however complex they might be, they are, ultimately, broken. The Iceman, the newest film by director Ariel Vromen, deals with just such a specimen of humanity.
The Iceman relates the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a second-generation Polish-Irish immigrant who grew up in New Jersey and went onto become the most prolific contract killer in known Mafia history. What is interesting about Kuklinski’s bio is that, unlike the typical mobster profile, it seems he was murdering people long before he was recruited into La Cosa Nostra. Furthermore, Kuklinski had a wife and kids who, when he was finally arrested in 1986, for a slew of atrocities, seemed to have no knowledge of his other life.
Films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Monster try to delve into the aberrant psyches of their real-life subjects, trying to understand why they were how they were. The Iceman, however, mostly settles for being an account of Kuklinski’s time working for the Gambino crime family, using but never explaining his relationship with his family or the paradox between his work and home life. Only the performance of Michael Shannon succeeds in making the character into anything more than just a nasty piece of work.
Shannon, perennially intense and volatile, would seem a natural fit to play a serial killer and/or hitman: from his role as a darkly posturing son of a family friend in Revolutionary Road (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) or the lead role as a family man plagued with apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter, he makes a habit of turning in what critics like to refer to as “powerhouse performances”.
In the case of The Iceman, Shannon elevates the material he’s given: a moment where Kuklinski’s being held in a car outside his house by his pissed-off former employer, played by Ray Liotta, only to have his little girl approach the window, the way Shannon mutters ferociously at the hoodlums, “Don’t you touch her, don’t you fucking touch her”, is nothing short of electric. When the film gives Shannon something to play – anger, frustration, obscure shame – it becomes something more than the Scorsese-lite, Sopranos meets The Boston Strangler mash-up it seems to aspire to be.
Sadly, though, Shannon is mostly expected just to glower his way through scenes with the likes of Ray Liotta’s Roy DeMeo, a character he’s essentially been playing for years (mostly recently in last year’s Killing Them Softly) and Chris Evan’s mulleted, sunglass-wearing ice cream man/fellow professional killer Robert Pronge. It’s not to say that either actor is in any way “bad” or even less than convincing – indeed, Liotta is the most convincing on-screen hoodlum since Cagney and Evans’ off-the-cuff charm almost succeeds in making Prong likeable –, but they feel like distractions from the main act, which must surely be the interaction between Kuklinski and his family.
Winona Ryder just about convinces as Kuklinski’s oblivious wife Deborah (her first serious dramatic role since Black Swan back in 2010) and there’s enough chemistry between them that, were it not for his predilection for whacking people, they might even make a cute couple.
Their kids are sufficiently winsome without being annoying – the scene where they interrupt mum and dad having sex could have been cringe-worthy, but it ends up being almost sweet. What’s never explained is how a man almost certainly suffering from anti-social personality disorder would choose to go to the trouble of raising a family; it’s considered that the real-life Kuklinski may well have beaten his wife, though The Iceman sanitizes the spillover between his two worlds by having Kuklinski speed after a motorist who insulted his family, all while their screaming in the back seat, instead.
Similarly, though the film acknowledges that Kuklinski used to kill people on his own time, showing him cutting the throat of an obnoxious bar patron who insulted his date, it never truly explores his darker urges.
James Franco appears in a bit part as one of Kuklinski’s sleazy victims (he was initially set to play Prong but had to scale back his involvement) and David Schwimmer makes an almost unrecognizable appearance in ponytail and ridiculous porn ‘tasche.
Steven Dorff, meanwhile, cameos as Joseph Kuklinski, Richard’s scumbag brother whom he visits in prison. Locked up for the rape and murder of a twelve-year old girl, Joseph expresses the sentiment that their violent upbringing at the hands an abusive father inevitably means that Joseph is doomed to follow the same path. Joseph denies this, though we, of course, know it to be true: the film opens with him already incarcerated. Even so, it would have been nice to explore the pathology behind Kuklinski’s psychosis, to shed light on what made him who he is.
While it’s perhaps ill advised to try and reduce as complex as head-case as Kuklinski clearly was to a simple case of nature vs. nurture, The Iceman neglects this aspect so that, in presenting for our delectation Richard Kuklinski in simple binary, it borders almost on the nihilistic.
The Iceman, though competently directed, solidly written, lacks something fundamental: a reason to care. Kuklinski is clearly a man in thrall to terrible urges, but how this gels with his other ‘Father of the Year’ persona is never clarified. Though very occasionally thrilling, the film ultimately has nothing to say; when Kuklinski is finally and inevitably sent to prison, it’s difficult to feel we know him any better than his case file, less so perhaps given what’s been excluded.
There’s a halfway decent gangster story lodged in here somewhere, but overall the film feels like a (somewhat brutal) compromise.