Less superhuman than inhuman: real life killer Richard ‘Iceman’ Kuklinski shares little in common with the heroes whose summer blockbuster window he shares, other than a fanciful moniker and a predisposition to solving problems with a dose of lethal violence. Played with a steely demonic presence by the ever-dependable Michael Shannon, Kuklinski begins his narrative here as an appropriately desensitised, isolated crony in a porn lab who, through a series of mixed chances and strange fortunes, ascends the criminal underworld of New Jersey. His expert duplicity even sees his wife Deborah (Winonda Ryder) and their two daughters fall for his guise as a banker through much of the film’s entirety. It’s a ruse drawn from reality, yet fantastical enough to be worthy of its big screen treatment.
Aiding and abetting Kuklinski’s actions – up until the point where they supersede even his own monstrosity – is Roy DeMeo, portrayed by Ray Liotta in one of a string of recent crime roles, including Killing Them Softly and a standout turn in this year’s Place Beyond the Pines. It’s the war-dance between Liotta and Shannon that gives the film, bereft of any outstanding form, its momentous energy. The rise and fall sustains itself as two men, as per usual, fall in and out of trust.
Watching – in some instances, delighting – as wickedly attained masculine worlds unravel before our eyes is something we’ve perhaps been spoiled with one too many times, as the downfall – inevitable as the precipitating rise – continually proves to be a moralistic inherency within the gangster genre. But director Ariel Vromen has a modicum of compassion for this otherwise inexcusable man; it shows in his casting of Shannon, whose fervid facial expressions command twin sensations of empathy and fearful awe. A brief, irritating flashback to Kuklinski’s abusive childhood enlightens us to a kernel of bad, bad influence, as if Vromen intends for this incitement to explain away the man’s propensity for cruelty and punishment.
Place our time spent in the company of Shannon’s Richard Kuklinski within the context of the actual man himself, and one is presented with an unforeseen yet familiar dichotomy between nature and nurture. Was Kuklinski, as the film suggests, a disturbingly reserved man with an unfortunate background who became a victim of circumstance, or was his endpoint as an unfeeling killer always an inevitability, with or without a permissive structure in which to carry out the killing?
To Shannon’s credit, he conceals just enough beneath an icy countenance to never let the fundamentals of his grievances fall easily into our laps. Consider, by comparison, the telling nervousness of Liotta’s Roy DeMeo, James Franco’s panicked Marty or the careless whims of David Schwimmer’s Rosenthal. Stood against these men, Kuklinski, however prone to outburst, has a lid on his temperament. And what a lid: the killer’s hair gradually sprouts into a distinctive owl-like shape, enhancing Shannon’s demonic facial properties.
The superman is half-built. If mafia men are essentially doomed to allow their attempts at dominance be swamped by chance, then it is on Kuklinski’s head to wrest control away from others and assert himself as god of everything, beyond his strangely successful attempt at taking care of his family. “I think God’s busy,” he mutters, before fatally shooting a snivelling, praying Marty. A genuine undercurrent of animosity and anger toward God is the most potent ingredient of Kuklinski’s persona, and its fire is fed with each and every step taken to ensuring his careful evolution from mechanical mercenary to big-time player. As he prepares to fire another shot, he assures his victim that “life can be very random sometimes”. Not if you’re the one holding the gun.
There’s an interesting sequence between the mounting decades of violence that zones in on the Vietnam War, whose coverage is transmitted on a television in the Kuklinski household. When quizzed by his daughter on the death toll, Kuklinski says, “There are too many people in the world for God to care about.” This contextualises the war as analogous with Kuklinski’s own beginnings as a disposable footsoldier among many, though the sentiment also extends to his false persona as a banker – a profession whose ruthless dog-eat-dog connotations in today’s society mark it a notable inclusion in the film’s web of deception.
Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski has one foot in another era, evoking the 70s feel of Coppola’s classic The Godfather through a lush, bronzed lighting to glamorise scenes of attractive yet hollow promise, and elsewhere locates lacklustre, dusty backroom offices streaked with light from the outside world. The old-school style is however married to the modern, anxious aesthetic of trembling frames. At times, the camera shares in Shannon’s reserved, casual mannerisms; at others, it alights into a blistering montage.
What drew Vromen to this story for his first directorial feature in six years? Following Anthony Bruno’s book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, Vromen goes some ways to humanising a murderer of over a hundred people while simultaneously presenting him as inhuman. The director can do what he likes, certainly, but his half-hearted humanising is redundant when Shannon shuts-out both the characters and the audience. If Kuklinski’s jail cell admission of “I’m not asking for forgiveness, I’m not repenting” – another jab at God – is verbatim, one imagines the man himself would be flattered at such a seductive portrayal of his deeds onscreen. He has Michael Shannon to thank, chiefly.