The first thing required of you is to put yourself in the mind of a man who barely knows how to love, thinks everyone is out to get him, has a limitless capacity for violence and doesn't seem to be afraid of death or consequences. Thus is the story of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), the real-life Mafia hit man who from 1948 to 1986 killed at least 100 people. Next you have to imagine how his wife Barbara Kuklinski (Winona Ryder) and their two daughters could have lived with such a man without ever knowing who he really was, right up until the day the SWAT team came and charged the 6-foot-4-inch giant outside of his family home like they were taking down a live explosive, and indeed they were.
The Iceman is a controlled, disconcertingly quiet film, directed by Ariel Vromen. I saw a screening in Michigan with my mother, and afterward she asked me, "I wonder what Michael Shannon is like in real life," which suggests that some men are so frightening and powerful on screen that it's impossible to imagine that they could be normal in real life. I think my mother imagines they keep Michael Shannon tied to a pole in a field, pensively circling when he's not on a film set. I told her about the hilarious video Shannon made for Funny or Die of his reading of the insane Delta Gamma sorority letter, that actors are regular men, that I once saw an acquaintance of mine photographed with Shannon on Facebook and so from this we know he was nice enough to pause for a photograph, anyway—although it's true, he wasn't smiling.
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Many die onscreen in The Iceman, yet the film has been criticized for being somehow tame in its violence and not doing the brutality later described by Kuklinski justice, but I say that's wrong. You don't kill 100 men successfully with a lot of passion and bravado; you walk up to the target in a parked car, quietly slash his throat and walk away. In one scene, Kuklinski and his accomplice, the psychotic Mr. Freezy—played by a long-haired Chris Evans—are shown moving around frozen meat and discussing the money split for their next job. The space between the actors is so calm and unrepentant that you might go half the scene before you realize it's a dead body hanging from its ankles, right in front of your face. And if you're wondering how Barbara could have loved such a man without question, well. Haven't you ever known women who were meek and desperate to be cared for?
The story doesn't dwell so much on why Kuklinski is the way he is, so much as what it must have been like for him to live that way. It doesn't sympathize with him, per se, but it does invite us to consider his suffering. Sure, he doesn't believe in God, and his lack of empathy for his victims likely spills over into something like joy, but he does love his family, and in Shannon's performance you'll find glimpses of a man who wishes his life could have gone some other way.
Interested parties would do well to check out the 2003 documentary The Iceman Interviews (it's streaming on YouTube) wherein a psychologist talks to Kuklinski at length about the killings and his motivations. "How do you feel about killing?" the psychologist asks him, and Kuklinski answers without missing a beat, "I don't."
The Iceman continues at the Village 6.