Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Iceman (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Iceman
Veteran Indie actor Michael Shannon gives a wonderfully visceral and gritty performance in his portrayal of real life killer Michael Kuklinski. This is a genuine departure for Shannon, who is known for playing very sensitive, introverted characters that are either passive or schizoid and prone to martyrdom as in "Take Shelter" (2011).

Although not fully explained in the film, the real Kuklinski was medically diagnosed by a prison doctor as having bipolar, anti-social and paranoid personality disorders with periods of unstoppable  rage. Moreover he was likely sociopathic, clearly letting nothing get in his way. Touched upon in the biopic was the fact that  Kuklinski was abused by both his father and mother who apparently beat him with broomhandles. He also killed cats and dogs as a young man. 

The film "The Iceman" begins in the gray urban landscape of Jersey City circa 1962 with a claustrophobic camera reminiscent of Scorsese and Brian DePalma. Shannon himself in this role is physically frightening. His head by itself is like the wedge of an ax. Perversely, the film mocks coming of age young romance films by the very soft spoken tension and danger that lurks within the animal Kuklinski by candlelight. The infamous Winona Ryder appears as his date and future wife Deborah and she is authentic as an empathetic and caring love, although you might wonder why she doesn't have a clue as to Kuklinski's dark side. Kuklinski says he works for Disney. In actuality, he pirates low budget porn films.

While things seem benign, if unseemly at first with Kuklinski going up to a dark New York room and copying porno, a group of shady men barge in and demand to take the material. They cut and hit him. 

That night, he slips out a back door and slits a henchman's throat accompanied by bass chords reminiscent of John Carpenter. 

Incredibly, the murder is undiscovered. And there are other incidences where Kuklinski kills for sport, merely because he feels someone is a jerk. Abruptly,   Ray Liotta appears as Roy Demeo, a porn chief who psychotically offers Kuklinski a job as hit man, although I use the term "offer" loosely as Demeo has a gun at his temple.

Kuklinski works his way up the bloody ladder so to speak in the mode of DePalma's "Scarface", brutally murdering those that he is ordered to dispose of and attending high end Italian restaurants with his wife and two daughters.

And they suspect nothing, thinking that he deals in Wall Street trends. 

The most provocative but altogether disturbing concept in "The Iceman" is the  individual Kuklinski himself as he manages to channel his murderous rage and actually become employable and a success in the eyes of his family and acquaintances. Seen in this way he is a kind of antihero, although (hopefully)  no one you would want to emulate.

As the killings become numerous, (though he refuses to kill children or women) he manages to upset the obnoxious Demeo and Kuklinski has to look over his shoulder with his enemies going after his daughters.

There is a little dash of Bronson-era "Death Wish" to Ariel Vromen's direction given Kuklinski's very real anxiety and rage in keeping his family together. Like "Death Wish" too, nearly everyone he kills, is clearly dishonest, unkind or as cruel as Kuklinski. We see a  ratty David Schwimmer and a derelict James Franco and they duly do their cameo roles.  This is not to say that Kuklinski the man is sympathetic at all, yet he does love his family in his own delusional and mentally ill manner. 

At times, "The Iceman" apes a horror film with the huge scary shape of Richard Kuklinski using a knife in the darkness or disco dancing with cyanide on a dance floor. We watch him ice and hack at limbs with butcher saws at backroom freezers. Then, surprisingly  we see Kuklinski the killer rush to the hospital like any concerned and grieving parent, and are thrown for a loop.
Such is the excellence of Michael Shannon's portrayal that outshines the somewhat limited docudrama narrative.

Shannon's character is no pop culture feast as is Hannibal Lecter. But one look at Shannon's black coffee cup eyes is as intriguingly charged as Anthony Hopkins' Jack O' Lantern smile in that iconic role. We don't sympathize with Richard Kuklinski but at least we recognize his instability without the crutch of contemporary artifice.

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