The Hitman has a long lineage in Hollywood. Of course, because the Hitman’s primary occupation is the extinction of human life by violent means – be it shooting, knifing, or other more extreme methods – this precludes h...
The Hitman has a long lineage in Hollywood. Of course, because the Hitman’s primary occupation is the extinction of human life by violent means – be it shooting, knifing, or other more extreme methods – this precludes him from adhering to standard Hollywood Code which stipulates that film protagonists must be likable and/or sympathetic. There are two typical remedies to this quandary – 1.) Make the Hitman a side character or 2.) If choosing to make the Hitman your principal character, romanticize the situation, play it for comedy’s sake or make him “empathetic” within his own context. And this brings us to the main character of the just-released Iceman, Richard Kuklinski, bewilderingly based on a real person.
After seeing The Iceman I did a little research on the real-life Kuklinski and learned he was considered as much a serial killer as a contract killer – a man who killed somewhere between 100 and 250 people, partly for varying crime families who sought his employment and partly for the sheer thrill it provided him. Shudder. Director Ariel Vromen, however, who wrote the script with Morgan Land which they based on Anthony Bruno’s non-fiction book, choose to essentially make Kuklinski a full-time family man and part-time hitman.
Consider the opening scene. It is not, crucially, of Kuklinski killing someone, though that turns up quickly in the second scene. No, it is a scene of Kuklinski taking his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) out on their first date, where she fiddles with the teensy cross around her neck as if trying to get the okay from above about this guy across the table. The scene establishes him as being genuinely caring (he opens the door for her), a stingy conversationalist and a liar – he tells her he puts together movie reels for Disney when, in fact, he puts them together for porn films as part of a mob run outfit.
The latter is how he comes into contact with mob moss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) who shuts down the porn film ring but senses potential in this Kuklinski as a thug when he shoves a gun in his face and he does not react. So, to make ends meet, considering he has his wife and now two daughters at home, Kuklinksi begins taking human lives to make a living, though with a caveat – he does not kill women and children. This leads directly to his undoing and eventually an uneasy alliance with another skeezy hitman (Chris Evans) who drives an ice cream truck which gives him a convenient place to tuck away dead bodies.
Kuklinski is played by Michael Shannon in another of his seemingly ceaseless string of virtuoso performances. I can only imagine there are few things in this life more frightening than Ray Liotta thrusting a gun in your face – film fakery or not. Thus, you have to hire a actor capable of not flinching when it happens. Clearly this is why Vromen and his producers hired Shannon. He stares down Ray Liotta and wins. If that isn’t Academy Award worthy, nothing is. This might lead the reader to suspect that Shannon parades about this decade-jumping crime story (from the sixties to the seventies to the eighties, his suits and facial hair getting louder) like a preeminent badass, but Shannon wisely retreats from playing to convention or caricature.
Although the film makes it clear that Kuklinski’s family is what drives him to this untraditional vocation, it also attempts to make no apologies (even though Kuklinski makes a sort-of apology in the film’s last scene) for the character nor ask the audience to put on rose-colored classes and view him with empathy. That is daring.
Shannon, miraculously, lets us in behind the hard-boiled veneer while simultaneously not granting us much access to the inner-workings of what makes him tic. A key scene late as events around him are piling up and spiraling out of control takes place on an elevator where, in a way I struggle to describe, we can see – very nearly literally
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