I know a lot about Richard Kuklinski. Not only have I read Philip Carlo’s 2009 biography The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, but I’ve also seen the two-part HBO prison interview with the man himself. From that knowledge alone, I remember being slightly perplexed as to why Michael Shannon was chosen to portray him in 2012’s The Iceman. It’s not that Shannon is a bad actor; to the contrary, I think he’s one of the more talented people working in Hollywood today. No, I was mainly confused about Shannon’s appearance in contrast to how the real Kuklinski actually looked. In retrospect, the late James Gandolfini might have been a wiser choice, but as I settled in to this film, I realized that Shannon’s raw ability superseded the physical differences.
The Iceman introduces us to Kuklinski while he is still employed splicing pornographic films together in a seedy lab. Not long after he meets a woman named Deborah (Winona Ryder) who seems to reach him on a level unattainable to most of humankind. Kuklinski is taken with her, but oddly cautious about showing any real emotion. Aside from the occasional shot at off-the-wall humor, Kuklinski is altogether emotionless. Nevertheless, Deborah looks past his exterior and finds enough good in him to become his wife. The newlyweds soon add a baby girl to their family and all seems to be going well.
One evening, Kuklinski is accosted at the film lab by a gangster named Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and his goons. Demeo is upset over the fact that a shipment of porno films has not been finished and holds Kuklinski personally responsible. Despite an array of valid excuses, Kuklinski is slapped around, threatened, and held at gunpoint. To Demeo’s surprise, none of this appears to shake Kuklinski at all. Demeo opines that such a cold man must be devoid of feeling and secretly decides to recruit him as an enforcer. Kuklinski’s first “test” is to kill a homeless man at Demeo’s insistence without questioning. He does. This begins Kuklinski’s long and tumultuous career as one of the most feared contract killers to ever walk the face of the earth.
First off, I did enjoy this film. I felt it was well done and it certainly kept me interested throughout. My issue is that the facts of Richard Kuklinski’s life and career were intermixed, twisted, and mashed together, sometimes out of sequence. Again, I’ve seen the HBO interviews, and I vividly remember some of Kuklinski’s recollections about different hits he carried out. The filmmakers appeared to take small pieces from different occurrences and apply them to one situation. While it’s okay to make creative changes in the interest of a good story, I felt that it actually downplayed Kuklinski’s callousness. He was, in reality, much viler than this film would have us believe. Here he is depicted as a caring family man who murdered for profit. That isn’t necessarily untrue, but the real Kuklinski, by his own account, sometimes took pleasure in the numerous methods he used to kill people. For example, the real Kuklinski once tied a man up and left him in a cave to be eaten alive by rats. To add insult to injury, he videotaped the entire ordeal. Shannon’s Kuklinski simply wasn’t that evil. He had a hair-trigger temper, but even that was subdued compared to the man he was depicting.
A second issue I had with this film is that Kuklinski’s cold-heartedness almost comes out of left field. For people who have an awareness of the real case, it doesn’t hurt to be dumped into the middle of the story. But for people who have never heard of Kuklinski, his abrupt maniacal transformation doesn’t make a lot of sense. For a broad audience, I feel it might have been necessary to broach the subject of where Kuklinski came from and how he became a monster. Only once did the filmmakers touch on his back story, and it was a bit too fleeting to paint the big picture. While visiting his brother Joe in prison, a discussion arises about their violent upbringing. But again, too much is going on in this film for the average person to pay attention to these small details.
Again, some things have been changed without explanation. One of Kuklinski’s first victims is a man who insults him at a bar. Later that evening, Kuklinski slits his throat and calmly walks off into the night. The real Kuklinski spoke about this incident during the interviews, and he actually set the man on fire in his car; he didn’t slit his throat. Why such details were altered, I can’t really say.
For the most part, The Iceman is a winner. If nothing else, I would encourage everyone to watch it for its entertainment value, not necessarily for its accuracy. By all means, seek out the HBO interviews and a copy of Philip Carlo’s book if you want to experience Richard Kuklinski in all his wickedness.