Director Ariel Vromen’s gangster drama, The Iceman, has finally opened here in the US. It’s the true story of notorious cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinksi, a prolific contract assassin for the mob who was also a devoted family man. By his own reckoning, he killed more than a hundred people, but the title comes from Kuklinski’s nickname. Not only did he reportedly freeze his victims in order to throw off the authorities trying to discern time of death, but he was also said to have ice water in his veins.
Taken from a 1992 HBO documentary featuring interviews with Kuklinski behind bars (he died prison in 2006) and a true-crime novel by Anthony Bruno, published in 1993, the script by Vromen and Morgan Land takes place over the course of the two most prolific decades of Kuklinski’s “career”. It paints a grisly picture of his “day job” as well as the slow grind on his family.
It’s been a long road to the big screen. Since it was first announced more than two years ago, the production has been through several cast incarnations, with Michael Shannon as the title character being the one constant. Back in 2011 when Nu Image and Millennium were trying to drum up both interest and funding, an extremely creepy test trailer was produced with Shannon and Michael Wincott as Robert Pronge aka Mr. Freezy. (I debated whether or not to post it. It’s kind of “spoiler-y” since a version of the scene is included in the final cut almost wholly intact. It’s available online if you want to see it)
Soon after, the poster above landed with the names Benicio Del Toro and James Franco appearing alongside Shannon’s. But time waits for no man, and certainly not an in-demand actor, so while production specifics were still being ironed out , Franco was replaced by Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy and Del Toro was replaced by Ray Liotta as mid-level Gambino crew boss Roy Demeo. Other announced cast included villainous henchman extraordinaire Elias Koteas and Vromen regular Ori Pfeffer who were replaced by David Schwimmer and Danny Abeckaser. Winona Ryder replaced the pregnant Maggie Gyllenhaal as Deborah Kuklinski. Franco still wanted to be a part of the film, so when cameras finally rolled, he took the small, but pivotal role of Marty.
Vromen’s first choices may have fallen through, but the cast he ended up with was so good, I have a hard time imagining anyone else in the roles, especially Ray Liotta as Roy Demeo . With all due respect to Benicio Del Toro, if you need someone to do what Ray Liotta does as well as Ray Liotta does it, you get Ray Liotta.
It can not come as a surprise to anyone how good Michael Shannon is at portraying The Ice Man’s dual nature. (More than Skyfall, more than American Beauty, Sam Mendes should be remembered for bringing an unknown theater actor to our attention and directing him to an Oscar nomination in Revolutionary Road.) The ultimate Jekyll and Hyde, equal parts callous and merciless sociopath exuding cold-blooded menace then flipping a switch to devoted husband and father, the entire movie turns on Shannon’s mesmerizing performance. Every move, every twitch is fine-tuned so that even in the quietest moments, a barely concealed rage is simmering just below the surface. It boils over at unexpected times and doesn’t when we think it will, thus keeping the audience off balance.
So, the brilliance of Michael Shannon aside, what is an even bigger treat is the strength of the rest of the cast. Winona Ryder, who really needs to work more, is perfection as Kuklinski’s sweetly naïve and increasingly disillusioned wife. Ryder, with her big, trusting brown eyes can pull off guileless. I don’t think I’d have bought it from Gyllenhaal. If you only know Chris Evans from silly rom-coms like What’s Your Number? or comic-book movies like The Fantastic Four and Captain America (okay I like that one too), you will not recognize him beneath the dark glasses, long stringy hair, heavy sideburns and walrus mustache, but also because he’s just that good as a fellow assassin and Richie’s erstwhile business partner, driving around in that ice cream truck. Robert Davi as a high-ranking Gambino goon and David Schwimmer as DeMeo’s friend and #2 henchman were also effective. Danny Abeckaser, an actor I’d never heard of before, I thought was particularly compelling as Richie’s one loyal friend. (At least he was loyal to the one side of the man that he knew.)
The story begins in 1964 with a first date, as typically awkward as most, between Richie and Deborah. (He tells her he dubs Disney cartoons instead of the truth, that he’s involved with a mob-controlled porn outfit.) Just as innocently as it begins, however, that switch is quickly flipped and we see Richie committing his first (or at least first on-screen) murder, killing the dirtbag stupid enough to disrespect “his girl”. His icy cool soon brings him to the attention of crime boss Demeo who puts his “talents” to good use. He becomes so good at the killing business that eventually he’s able to move Deborah, now his wife, and his two girls, into an upscale New Jersey suburb.
The movie makes leaps in time, condensing Richie’s “career” in order to keep the momentum going and the focus on the crime. This is not a psychological character study in the vein of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, yet it’s full of telling psychological details like Richie’s contempt for religion, brilliantly depicted in Shannon’s one scene with James Franco. Kuklinski is shockingly and casually cruel as he watches his victim pray for deliverance.
The scene with Kuklinski’s brother, Joey, played by Stephen Dorff, is also illuminating. The younger Kuklinski is in prison, serving a life sentence for killing a child and in a brief flashback we get a glimpse of the abusive early life that both brothers endured. The story really hinges on Kuklinski’s aversion to hurting women and children. It is the driving force in his relationship with his wife and two daughters and they ultimately become his Achilles heel.
The answer to the question of how Kuklinski managed to fool his family for so long seems to be to be fairly simple, at least as far as his wife Deborah goes. She believed what she wanted to believe.
There is a scene in which Deborah starts to confront “Richie” for his erratic behavior, but as soon as he gets angry with her, violent to the point of smashing household objects in his path, she backs down. The next thing we know, they are embracing and she’s apologizing for having questioned him. Even before this though, a crucial scene that perfectly outlines the nature of Kuklinski’s relationship with his wife occurs fairly early on. We see him come home late at night to his tiny apartment and the next thing we know he’s giving a bottle to his infant daughter. When he finds the real-estate section of the newspaper on the table with a listing circled, we the audience wonder how he’s going to react to the idea that his wife wants a bigger house. Kuklinski takes it in stride and we know he’ll do whatever it takes to get her that house. Deborah says “You probably think I’m a spoiled brat.” He gives her what passes for a smile and answers, “No, you just like to be taken care of.” She snuggles closer and tells him in a little girl voice, “I like the way you take care of me.” As the years go by, it is obvious that he’s taken care of her quite well and she wants to keep it that way. Ryder and Shannon have terrific chemistry. I absolutely bought them as a loving couple living their twisted version of the American Dream.
Director Vromen was responsible for 2006’s Danika with Marisa Tomei and Craig Bierko, Rx (2005) also co-written with Morgan Land, as well as a little short by the name of Jewel of the Sahara. (Look it up. I told you all roads lead to G*). Here, he brings a deft and authentic touch to well-trod material. Along with his production designer (Nathan Amondson) and cinematographer (Bobby Bukowski) they recreate the gritty look and feel of 1960’s and 70’s New Jersey where there must have been a pool hall and XXX theater on every corner. The film has a grainy quality and a muted color palette that brings to mind low-budget crime flicks of that era. Most of those are told from the point of view of the “good guys”, like Across 110th Street or The Seven-Ups, but the period detail is so good, including the wardrobe, the music and especially the cars, that this one would fit right alongside those classics.
It’s not Goodfellas, but it doesn’t aspire to be. It is a tough, lean, mob movie, completely evocative of time and place with a spellbinding performance by Michael Shannon that alone is worth the price of a ticket.
*(I think “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” will eventually be replaced by “All Roads Lead to Gerard Butler”. I can think of 5 or 6 connections here alone)