Violence in cinema inherently fascinates audiences because it represents an imitation of an irreversible act in real life; but even more then this, violent characters have an almost innate ability to captivate moviegoers. Once more, it seems as though we are able to “forgive” the gut churning violence through a combination of cognitive dissonance and identification with a character. How a film manages this is very significant, since the most extreme the violence, the further away we tend to shy from rooting for or sympathizing with the people in it.
All this is highly relevant because the main character of Ariel Vromen’s new film The Iceman is based on a factual cut and dried psychopath who was a real mob hit man with no conscience to speak of. A man who, as the film will remind us as almost an afterthought; is believed to have killed over one hundred individuals. The Richard Kuklinski that Michael Shannon portrays is this man, but he must also show us something in him that is admirably human as well. That Shannon succeeds to the degree he does is a testament not only to the spell of the film’s narrative but to his remarkable physical prowess.
From the first gravely syllable that rolls of his tongue, Michael Shannon is unrecognizable as the heavyset, square jawed man whose eyes hold a cold indifference that will prove his namesake. He’s adept at socializing only to the extent that it is expected of him, and even then an isolating distance is always present in those grey eyes. Kuklinski is a man of few words not because he lacks them, or because he chooses them carefully, but because they mean as little to him as the lives of the people they come from. Looming in almost every frame, Shannon dominates the film with his impassive; yet moldable features that time and time again fool us into forgetting about his cold-hearted nature.
When he meets gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liota) who offers him a job as a disposer of human liabilities, it’s nothing but a means of making money to support his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and his families’ lifestyle. His tenderness with his two daughters shows an attachment that is utterly absent from his face while on the job, and the juxtaposition between the family man and the mob killer is the film’s primary point of interest.
Spanning a period of twenty years, the film mostly depicts the brutal aftermath of his crimes, preferring instead to chart the slow dissolution of Kuklinski’s employment and its effect on his family life. During the latter he meets a fellow murder-for-hire named Robert Prongay (Chris Evans) who turns him onto the ghoulish practice of storing bodies in the freezer of his ice cream van in order to disguise the time of death. These scenes of them storing bodies in a freezer while discussing their lives are perhaps the most disturbing, since both the characters and the film treat this as though it were just another day at the office.
All of his co-stars are allowed just enough time to build a convincing relationship so that Kuklinski’s eventual fall has weight behind it. As his wife, Winona Ryder captures a woman who has just enough insecurity to shrug off her husband’s mood swings from aloofness to textbook psychopathic outbursts. Ray Liota also does well and doesn’t phone in his performance for once in a long time, but infuses his mafia boss with frustration that illustrates his more human side.
If there is any stand out it would have to be Chris Evan’s mercilessly deranged hitman for his casual display of amorality that feels arresting even in comparison to Kuklinski’s sociopathy. Known as “Mister Freezey” to the neighborhood children, Evans looks like the Unabomber on holiday with wild Charles Mason hair and a dark pair of aviators—the sort of person you’d forbid your kids getting a Creamsicle from.
Where Kuklinski has a strangely old testament code—no women or children—Prongay has no such qualms about killing witnesses in ways ranging from bombs, to poison administered in truly unsettling manner. Kuklinski’s relationship to him is one of simple convenience, but it’s still perhaps the most damning evidence of Kuklinski’s separation from the rest of the human race.
The Iceman works because Shannon is able to make Kuklinski’s love for his family a redeeming side, rather then using them as a barrier to mask his true self. By surrounding him with even worse killers and gangsters, his motivation to protect and provide for his family feel justified and, in a word, sympathetic. Kuklinski is a killer, but unlike say, Patrick Bateman, this is only his job.
In everyday life he was an iceman, a cold, blocky giant thawed from some patch in the remote wilderness, who never truly desired anything in this world he entered into, and so had no reason to care for anyone in it; until perhaps in a strange twist of fate, he found he was suddenly responsible for life himself. We do not ultimately know if this love he maintained for his family was reciprocated, but the last words Shannon says in the film are taken from the man directly;
“I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done except hurting my family. That’s the only thing I feel sorry for.”
Your willingness to believe this hinges on whether you believe Michael Shannon truly captures the dichotomous essence of the man, or if it is merely an idealized portrait of a twisted father, husband, and ultimately serial killer; who was so alien and mystifying to regular people that we could never hope to know the truth of him.