A box with the body parts of a young woman was dumped in Memorial Park in Dumont, NJ, in the seventies. A kid kicked the box and a hand fell out. That park was the setting of my first short story. The case was never solved. The cop who was assigned it lived across the street from me, but wouldn’t show me the crime photos. His niece lived next door to Richard Kuklinski, across the street from a friend of mine. A guitarist friend of mine, walking through the park after a jam, took a smoke break with a stranger on one of the benches. The man said he’d killed people and in gruesome ways. My friend only thought he was joking for a word or two and then believed the matter-of-fact descriptions. On Route 46, there used to be a great truck stop called Harry’s Corner. When I waited to be picked up from the bus years ago, I sat on top of a metal drum. It was there for years. One day it was gone. When I was reading “The Iceman” by Philip Carlo, about a man conflicted over whether he was a family man and successful hitman or a devoted husband, father and serial killer, there was a mention that one of his bodies was shut in a metal drum that Richard Kuklinski dumped outside of Harry’s Corner on Route 46. I ate hot dogs on it.
Richard Kuklinski perfected the art of killing. Raised in Jersey City, he endured abusive parents, nuns, principals and neighborhood bullies. His first kill was a gang leader in the projects near where Kuklinski lived. He beat the kid to death, drove him to the Pine Barrens, cut off his fingertips and smashed his teeth to cover his identity. He also burned an off-duty cop in his car after an abusive game of pool. By the time he was a late teen, Kuklinski would cruise the west side of Manhattan looking for bums, or the occasional overly aggressive gay man, to kill so he could study the different ways people died. He was equally lethal with a gun, knife, noose, icepick or poison. He did pieces of work for Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family and would go on to do jobs for all five of the New York families. He became one of the gears that wound the Murder Machine, the renegade almost-Gambino crew that was led by Roy DiMeo, another sociopathic killer making his way in the world doing what he knew best. Kuklinski met quite a few sociopaths, he could have had a TV series with psychopath of the week.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company graduate Michael Shannon is a wonder. I first noticed him as the pious but corruptible Agent Van Elder in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. His harsh visage laid every insecurity bare and exposed. His muted role as a reluctant visionary in the 2011 apocalypse teaser Take Shelter showed the tortured ambiguity of true faith. Shannon oozed sleaze and a maniacal energy as rock agent Kim Fowley in The Runaways. He softened his features and attitude to completely transform himself into the unrecognizably nice guy hearse driver in Grand Theft Parsons, about stealing the body of country rock musician Gram Parsons so he could be buried at Joshua Tree National Park. As The Iceman, Richard Kuklinski, Shannon downplays cool sensuality and restrains the hair-trigger temper with a shy menacing stare. Kuklinski has no fear because he was raised by violence and is so near and dear to death. Kuklinski was an altar boy, but adult Kuklinski has no use for god, except to provide a better school for his kids. He lets Marty Freeman (James Franco) pray to god to stop him before he plugs him. “Go on, tell him to come down and stop me.” He waits. “I’m not feeling nothing. Nothing at all,” he says as the prayers have no effect. “Guess god was busy.”
Shannon’s performance turns The Iceman into a character study more than a gangster movie. It has its gore and gets the names right, but Richard is shown more as damaged than demented. The film only gives a glimpse into the abuse the budding contract killer got at the hands of his father. Stephen Dorff, as Richard’s brother Joseph Kuklinski who is jailed for killing a twelve year old girl, mentions that Kuklinski tied stray dogs to a train as a kid. The movie doesn’t delve into the nature of the man who killed between 100 and 350 people, depending on when you axed. Shannon gives Kuklinski a humanity that was illusory in the HBO interview documentary a few years ago. He also captures his shy charm and enjoyment of his work. Kuklinski dances into one of his hits to the beat of Blondie’s Heart of Glass. He looks like he likes to dance. Later, Kuklinski will write a poem for his daughter’s sweet sixteen birthday party. On their first date, Kuklinski tells his future wife that he does voices for cartoons and that his favorite is Cinderella.
I love Winona Ryder. Have since Beetlejuice. She has been consistently convincing whether playing repressed lust in the film version of The Crucible or contending with upstart actors Angelina Jolie and the late Brittany Murphy in Girl, Interrupted. Here, Ryder plays Deborah Kuklinski, the oblivious wife. Later, Ryder will radiate betrayal as she watches her husband’s life unfold in court. Deborah only endures two flashes of the Iceman in the movie. After a minor accident, Richard goes on a crazed chase through afternoon traffic with his wife and kids in the car. Later, when Kuklinski gets moody after being put on a shelf by Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), Deborah tells Kuklinski that it doesn’t feel like he cares any more. After an outburst that almost brings down the house, Kuklinksi admits that his wife and daughters is the only thing in the world that he cares about. That is the heart of the movie. Kuklinski’s wife and daughters is the only thing he cares about in his insular world. Whatever he does for them is alright because he does it for them. He’d probably do it anyway, but it makes him more likeable that he does it for them. This Iceman was a guy who’d kill bums on the West Side Highway just to see how they died.
You might wonder why The Iceman doesn’t pop Roy DeMeo like he does everyone else who looks at him sideways. It is because DeMeo was equally murder hungry. DeMeo was ruthless, hungry but ultimately forever frustrated from his lifelong goal, to be a made guy. DeMeo and his crew earned and they earned well and they made more guys disappear than most guys who got their buttons, but they were too bloodstained to be associated with the Gambinos. Ray Liotta is a striking DeMeo. He is the only presence that could cow the cold Polack. Well, almost. Chris Evans plays Robert “Mr. Softee” Pronge, who drives an ice cream truck and freezes the bodies of his hits to confuse the coroners about the time of death. He also carves a mean corpse.
Director Ariel Vromen captures the era and the locales with a comfortable accuracy. The Gemini Lounge, where Roy DeMeo holds murderous court, looks a little bigger than I remember it. It’s now the Flatlands Church of God. The ELO and Blondie songs that play in the clubs and on the radio don’t drive the rhythm of the movie as it does in a Scorsese picture. Vromen cuts a lengthy list of crimes and a lifetime of perfecting murder to make it look like Kuklinski was drawn into the life rather than choose it. Kuklinski is living at the mouth of a volcano that Vromen only hints at. We know that DeMeo faces a full-scale Columbian vendetta after Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer), who he brought into this world and loves like a son, killed his coked-out connection and took the money and drugs, but it’s just another day’s work for Kuklinski. Office gossip.
The AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater has a long-ass escalator. I went to the wrong level because I’m a dumbass and got happily stuck behind Chris Rock and a friend. They must have been coming out of the noon showing of the new Ironman. Rock turned around and asked me what I thought of the movie and I told him that I was actually there to see The Iceman. He told his friend that they should have seen that instead. I haven’t seen Ironman, but I’d have to agree. The Iceman isn’t just a gangster movie, you might be disappointed if you go to it looking for that. It’s the story of a guy who goes to work so his wife and daughters can live in a four-bedroom house in Dumont, NJ.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars