Monday, September 10, 2012

TIFF 2012: The Iceman

The Iceman (U.S., 2012) directed by Ariel Vromen, 103 minutes
Monday, September 10, 2012, 11.15am, Scotiabank 3

This film is a fictional re-enactment of the life of Richard Kuklinski, a hired killer for the Gambino family. As a Polish-American, Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) could not be initiated into the crime family as he was not of Italian descent but he served as a dutiful "soldier" nonetheless and carried out some 100 hits (some say that the number is closer to 250). 

Either due to his stone cold demeanor during hits or his method of freezing the bodies he kills to disguise the time of death, he soon acquires his nickname. The film convincingly traces a long history of violence stretching from the 1950s (murdering a man in a pool hall who insults his fiancee) to proving himself worthy enough to be a hitman (shooting a homeless man to death) in the 1960s to numerous hits in the 70s.

Early in Kuklinski’s career, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), mob boss, taps into Kuklinki’s sociopathic tendencies that we later learn was part of a long string of violent and deadly altercations including torturing animals and schoolmates.

Perhaps what piqued the interest of the filmmaker was the seemingly normal life that Kuklinski led away from the mob. He and his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) live with their two beautiful daughters in an ideal suburban environment. The girls attend Catholic school; their dad takes them roller blading and to cozy family dinners. Kuklinksi is a loving father and husband and, to their minds, is an excellent provider and protector.

Shannon is of course immensely talented (roles as the mentally ill, truth telling John Givings in Revolutionary Road or the controlling, sleazy band manager Kim Fowley in The Runaways come to mind) and he is utterly convincing as the killer. There are also intriguing, surprising choices for supporting roles: James Franco as a sleazy mob underling with a penchant for filming underage girls; David Schwimmer sporting a Fu Manchu mustache who is a largely inept hitman and notorious blabbermouth connected to DeMeo; the usually jovial heartthrob Chris Evans as "Freezie" a particularly psychotic henchman who drives an ice cream truck; or, Stephen Dorff, as Joseph, Richie’s brother who is serving a long sentence for killing a child suggesting a Kuklinski family history of abuse and dysfunction.

When Kuklinski unravels, as he inevitably does, the family has no inkling of what this other life is. At his sentencing in the 1980s it’s the last time he sees his family (he died in prison in 2006 under somewhat suspect circumstances).

I hesitate to embrace this film somewhat … not because it isn’t good (it’s very well done for this genre) but haven’t we seen enough of this trope: the psychotic killer who has a tender side (exhibit #1: Tony Soprano and company)? Who loves his children and wants a quiet life when he’s not assassinating or torturing people? Of course, even killers have a line they won’t cross. For our “hero” it’s sparing the life of a seventeen year old girl who witnesses a murder.

I presume that I am troubled that I come to “like” or sympathize with Kuklinski despite the horrific murders. Is that enough ... to like him? We have no sense of why he is what he is. There are explicit hints of a brutal father but that doesn’t suffice (take a look at the family history - it's horrifying), a great many people have those and rarely kill. I wish time had been spent in exploring the sources of this icy resolve to kill on command at least as much time as was spent on the meticulously designed clothes and beautiful set.

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