Friday, June 7, 2013

The Iceman

Barbara and Richard Kuklinski as teenagers

Richard Kuklinski

THE ICEMAN            B   
USA  (105 mi)  2012  d:  Ariel Vromen            Official site 

Beginning in the spring of 1954, Kuklinski began prowling Hell’s Kitchen in a search of victims. He came to Manhattan numerous times over the ensuing weeks and months and killed people, always men, never a female, he says, always someone who rubbed him the wrong way, for some imagined or extremely slight reason. He shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned men to death. He left some where they dropped. He dumped some into the nearby Hudson River. Murder, for Richard, became sport. The New York police came to believe that the bums were attacking and killing one another, never suspecting that a full fledged serial killer from New Jersey was coming over to Manhattan's West Side for the purpose of killing people, to practice and perfect murder. Richard made the West Side of Manhattan a kind of lab for murder, a school, he says. 

—Philip Carlo, author of The Iceman, Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, 2006

While HBO already aired The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer in 1992, a documentary of two interviews a decade apart of Richard Kuklinski, a notorious mob enforcer for the Gambino crime family, alleging he killed somewhere between 100 and 250 people, there are also several books written on the subject, Philip Carlo’s The Iceman, Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, a rambling, non-investigative account that reveals as much truth as fiction, and the 1993 book upon which this film is based, Anthony Bruno's The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer.  Bruno combines the stories of the notorious killer, a former altar boy who is also the seriously abused son of a brutal, alcoholic, and child-murdering (killing Richard’s older brother Florian) father in Hackensack, New Jersey, and the ATF agent Dominick Polifrone, a cop who grew up with the same mobsters in Hackensack, but posed as a mobster in a risky undercover assignment wearing a wire of Kuklinski attempting to buy cyanide.  The book captures the tension of the ATF agent fearing he would be the next target, as Kuklinski’s reputation for cold-blooded efficiency intimidated even the crime families, while the film is less interested in any police involvement, preferring an exposé on the double life of Kuklinski, played by Michael Shannon, a shadowy figure who heartlessly kills with ease using a variety of methods including derringers, shotguns, knives, poison, ice picks, tire irons, baseball bats, bombs, along with his bare hands while also maintaining a normal family life as a husband and doting father of two daughters in suburban New Jersey.  To them, he was actively involved in the legitimate business of currency exchanges and finance, seen as a respectable man in the community, never giving them reason to suspect otherwise, though in real life Kuklinski was an enormous hulk of a man who regularly beat his wife.  Still, up until the moment of his arrest, they inexplicably remained completely in the dark about what he did for a living.  

Kuklinski lies when he meets his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) in the mid 60’s, amusingly telling her he dubs Disney films for a living when he’s really duplicating porn films, and while he’s not yet connected to the mob, he casually slices the throat of a poolroom hothead who casts dispersions on the reputation of his wife to be.  While this is the first murder shown in the film, it’s more likely that he’s killed a dozen men by then, many of them simply for sport, where he was a weird way of practicing various techniques on live subjects, just to see how they work.  But it’s the porn business controlled by organized crime that initially gets him involved, when mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) pays him a visit on a sizeable debt owed and decides to have some fun at his expense, sticking a gun in his face and the guy doesn’t even flinch.  Showing cojones to a mob boss is not an insignificant thing.  When DeMeo points out a random bum on the street and orders him to kill him, Kuklinski, better known by now as The Pollack, displays such a natural ease that he instantly becomes Roy’s favorite enforcer, staging robberies, collecting debts, helping traffic illegal porn for DeMeo and the Gambino family until he eventually becomes their preferred killer for hire, known for his efficiency, as his executions are ruthlessly cold and quick.  DeMeo’s right hand man is interestingly played by David Schwimmer, supposedly a Jewish kid he picked up off the streets with furry eyebrows and a shaggy ponytail, where despite the hardened look he will always be overly anxious Ross Geller from the TV sitcom Friends (1994 – 2004), while DeMeo’s connection to the Gambino family is Robert Davi as Leonard Marks, whose pock-marked face has tough guy character written all over it.  The side characters are all excellent, where outside of Shannon’s smoldering performance, it’s Winona Ryder, making the most of a small part, who may be the biggest surprise, reminiscent of Faye Dunaway as the pampered and overly entitled mob wife in James Gray’s The Yards (1999).  

Perhaps the most chilling sequence in the film is a visit to Trenton Federal Prison where Kuklinski visits his younger brother Joey (older in reality) who raped and killed a 12-year old girl, the nearly unrecognizable Stephen Dorff from Somewhere (2010), where we gain insight into their collective child abuse, with older brother Richard always bearing the brunt of his father’s beatings.  Joey crudely reminds him that they’re no different, going ballistic when he hears him try to pass himself off as a family man, “You remember when you bashed that kid’s head in with a rock?” literally screaming at him when he tries to leave, “You’re no better than me, we’re screwed up in the head!”  While it is true, Kuklinski's daughters are devoted to their dad, Shannon is near brilliant as a complex individual who remains distant and aloof but capable of conveying softness at home, a subtle and nuanced work defined by physically remaining calm and still, almost inert, expressing himself with only a facial gesture, where his scenes together with Liotta are a sheer pleasure.  While the initial intrigue into Kuklinski’s duplicitous life is intriguing, carefully balancing his calculating professional brutality with an almost tender home life, it’s when the mob is forced to cut him loose that things start to go astray, as without them, he’s an uncontrolled loose cannon, where his emotional stability starts to unravel as well, veering towards interior psychological horror, where the guy is surrounded by an all-enveloping paranoia, believing everyone around him to be his enemy except his family, where he goes on a one-man crusade to extinguish them all.  While it’s never clear how this is supposed to protect the lives of his family, who seem ever more vulnerable and exposed, his actions only draw public attention to the mob, something they deplore.  

The film starts to deteriorate with his friendship and tutorial from another hired killer, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), a sleazy assassin whose cover is driving around in an ice-cream truck selling popsicles to children, both of them loners, teaching him some of the most unsavory aspects of the business, such as freezing their victims and chopping them up before disposing of various body parts, often placing them in the trunks of cars and having them compacted into scrap metal before shipping them off to Japan to make new cars.  Hard corps and gritty throughout, depicted with almost unwatchable graphic gore through the equally remorseless character of Freezy, the director is literally rubbing the audience’s noses in the overriding stench of killing and death.  The seamy story covers some 30-years, detectable only through vintage cars, changing hair styles, and some odd choices of music, where we hear ELO’s lushly orchestrated “Livin’ Thing” ELO- Livin' Thing - YouTube  (4:01) during a roller-skating outing of Kuklinski and his family and later we hear Blondie's "Heart of Glass" Blondie - Heart of Glass 1979 Video TopPop stereo widescreen (4:09) during an infamous disco scene where Kuklinski blows cyanide into a guy’s face on the dance floor, killing him instantly.  It was Freezy that introduced Kuklinski to cyanide, becoming his preferred method of choice, as he could use it in public and simply walk by his victim while pretending to sneeze, spraying his face with poison, where he didn’t even have to dispose of the body afterwards.  But it was also Kuklinski’s undoing, attempting to buy the hard-to-find, exotic poison from an undercover federal agent, ultimately betrayed at age 51 in 1986 by “the only man I didn't kill.”  While the body count feels exaggerated and grows out of control by the end, this barely hints at the real damage caused by this man, who reportedly started by killing neighborhood cats as a youth and said he committed his first murder at 14, after which he said he felt ‘empowered.’  

Note – While Shannon was the original pick, there were multiple last minute casting changes, including Chris Evans and Ray Liotta replacing James Franco (who later took a secondary role) and Benicio del Toro, while Maggie Gyllenhaal quit after announcing her second pregnancy, and was replaced by Wynona Ryder, who’s suddenly all grown up.

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