How does one balance “family values” and the criminal mind? THE ICEMAN, directed by Ariel Vromen explores that schism, based on the true- life story of Richard Kuklinski, a mob enforcer for various Mafia families, aka “The Polack” who was indicted for killing 100 plus victims between @1954-1986 when he was taken down by an undercover officer in a drug deal on a quiet suburban street in Dumont, New Jersey. We get to see a lot of New Jersey – from Jersey City to the suburbs of Bergen County starting with Hoboken where the story begins in 1964. The clothes, cars, facial hair, and hair styles change with time, from his beautifully tailored suits to loud, brassy, too tight silk shirts becoming an indicator of the state of Kuklinski’s social/ monetary and mental status.
THE ICEMAN could be dismissed as another classic “film noir” movie, photographed not in black and white, but shot in subdued and shadowy colors; though at the onset of the movie, I kept thinking - okay this genre is too familiar - I have seen it played out many times before. BUT what makes this film so powerful and poignant is revealed in our initial encounter with a large lumbering, beefy, inarticulate guy – a beautiful in-your-face (accompanied by seeing–the-pores) close-up portrayal of Richard Kuklinski by the brilliant actor, Michael Shannon mooning over a slight, delicate, fragile, Jersey girl named Deborah (Winona Ryder finally given the opportunity to show her “chops” in a solid nuanced role) who becomes his wife. The visual body-type contradictions seen in this early frame echoes the plot's strange anomalies.
Nicknamed The Iceman – for freezing his corpses in an Industrial freezer so that the time of death could not be determined, Michael Shannon gives a powerful performance as a character whose only solace, loyalty and emotional ties are with the family that he has created with Deborah. Otherwise he is “cold” and hermetic sealed off from any other connections. The split between the innocence and “normality” of his upper middle-class family - his two lovely daughters go to Catholic school living an existence that is the opposite of Kuklinski’s brutal childhood. The gap between his “day” and often “middle-of-the-night” jobs, and his “domestic” life is a difficult balancing act. The family is oblivious to the source of their comfortable circumstances and the children adore their adoring father – irony rules.
Ray Liotta plays the vicious Roy Demeo, Kuklinski’s immediate “boss” (in the Mafia chain of command), equally brutish displaying a ruthlessness needed to oversee merciless underlings. The relationship between the shark-like maneuverings in the under-world is contrasted to the steady hum of Kuklinski’s “conventional” reality, but that thin line is hard to keep separate, and is eventually punctured physically and psychologically as his complex world slowly disentangles.
A person who can murder with such ease and dispassion usually does not garner our sympathy, but Michael Shannon’s expressiveness is very seductive, and despite being termed “the iceman”, we penetrate his enigmatic veneer and catch a glimpse of how a childhood of administered pain can mold one into the hardness of stone…but rarely into a killer. In this case we have an individual who became a contract murderer, and he was really good at it. Richard Kuklinski died in a Trenton NJ prison in 2006 supposedly of “natural causes,” but that is debatable since he was scheduled to be a witness against the Gambino family in an upcoming trial.