Richard Kuklinski was a killer for hire who once claimed that he had, during the course of his lethal career in the New York and New Jersey underworld, sent more than 100 victims to their final rest.
He was convicted for five of those deaths in 1988 — he pleaded guilty to yet another killing in 2003 — and was sentenced to consecutive life terms. He died in a prison hospital in Trenton, N.J. in 2006 at age 70.
His story has now been brought to the big screen in “The Iceman,” a somewhat confused, brutal film that’s nonetheless compelling, mostly because of a mesmerizing performance by the gifted Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) as Kuklinski and evocative period details.
Kuklinski’s story has been told before, though never in a feature film. He was previously the subject of non-fiction several books and two HBO documentaries that featured extensive interviews with him.
This new “Iceman” stresses the disconnect between Kuklinski’s chosen profession and his placid, seemingly normal domestic life as a loving husband and devoted father in suburbia.
The movie begins in the early 1960s with a young Kuklinski shyly courting Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder), who will become his wife. A man of very few words, he haltingly tells her that he works on animated movies, though really he toils in a film lab that handles porno films distributed by the Mafia. And we learn right away that Kuklinski has anger management issues when we see him follow into an alley a guy he feels failed to show proper respect and then efficiently slit the man’s throat.
Kuklinski is soon recruited as a hired killer by Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), a New Jersey mobster. In the movie, it is DeMeo who gives Kuklinski his nickname as “The Iceman” because of his seeming lack of emotion in stressful situations, i.e. having a gun in his face. Later, though his identity is still unknown by the press, Kuklinski is dubbed “The Iceman” by journalists because he frequently stores his victims in freezers, thus making it impossible for investigators to pinpoint their time of death.
Killing for hire pays well and Kuklinski explains this increasing prosperity to his wife by telling her that he is a currency trader. But as the pile of bodies he’s responsible for grows ever higher and his relationships with various mob figures more complicated, something’s gotta give and, eventually, it does.
What drives the movie is Shannon’s restrained yet forceful performance. His Kuklinski is a monster who ruthlessly slices and dices on the job but at home is a caring husband and father capable of cradling and prattling lovingly to his infant daughter while giving her a late night bottle.
Also effective are Ryder as his wife and Liotta, David Schwimmer and Robert Davi as mobsters. The ubiquitous James Franco pops up briefly — and pointlessly –as a scuzzy photographer who is one of Kuklinski’s targets.
The film makes an effort to uncover what’s behind Kuklinski’s brutality and readiness to kill by including flashbacks to his abusive childhood and a painful jailhouse visit with a younger brother (Stephen Dorff) who’s already doing time. But it feels as if director-cowriter Ariel Vroman (“Danika”) is throwing these in as explicatory sops.
Is there really any explaining, ever, what drives the Kuklinskis of this world?