Friday, May 10, 2013

‘The Iceman’ (2012) directed by Ariel Vromen

The Iceman is a monster story told from the point of view of the monster.  Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski was one of the most prolific known hitmen in US history, who claimed to have killed between 100 and 250 people both at the behest of his mob employers and simply because he had an innate compulsion to kill.  The name ‘Iceman’ was applied by the press in reference to his tactic of freezing the bodies of his victims, then thawing them out at a later date so the police couldn’t estimate a time of death.  Kuklinski was as sinister a human being as its possible to imagine; a killer taking pride in his work and experimenting with the best ways to kill, using, variously, guns, knives, explosives, tire irons, poison, garottes - even beating people to death with his bare hands “just for the exercise”. 

But there’s a contradiction at the heart of this story.  Kuklinski would commit atrocities at the drop of a hat and at the end of the day go home to his loving wife and two daughters, who think he’s a currency trader.  The Iceman explores the division between these two lives: how a man can spend his day up to his eyeballs in blood and then come home to hear how his daughters were doing in school and snuggle lovingly up to his beautiful wife in bed.

Richie Kuklinski (Michael Shannon)
Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is a hugely difficult role to play.  He’s the protagonist, the eyes through which we view this world and ultimately functions as the ‘hero’ of the film.  The amount to which we empathise with him is absolutely critical, if we find him utterly repugnant then the film fails as emotionally engaging drama and becomes a sleazy exploitation flick.  If we find ourselves caring too much about him, then congratulations Ariel Vromen, you’ve made a film that lionises a murderous psychopath.

I don’t think the film succeeds in walking this tightrope (more on that later), but that’s certainly not to detract from the mesmerising performance of Michael Shannon.  His hulking Kuklinski is introverted and dispassionate; his face an expressionless mask; his voice a low, gravelly monotone.  This minimalistic performance means that every tiny twitch and grimace is magnified in importance.  His dull, unblinking eyes recall a primal, instinctive terror, the kind that you’d feel if, swimming in the ocean, you caught sight of a huge black mass coming at you from the depths.

Deborah Kuklinski (Winona Ryder)
The tight emotional bondage Shannon puts Kuklinski in makes his inevitable explosive  breakdowns all the more terrifying.  Here we see a glimpse of the ‘real’ Kuklinski, the monster hiding under the skin.  This is some top notch acting and Shannon makes the transformation utterly believable as he lashes out, slipping into a murderous autopilot or furiously banging his head against a wall, muttering to himself in a low, maniacal voice.  The tension in these breakdowns is underlined by the fact that we view them through the eyes of his terrified and concerned family who have no idea how to process this inexplicable change..

Kuklinski’s wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) has the potential to be an utterly thankless role.  By narrative design she has to exist in a state of ignorant bliss, with both the vast majority of characters and the audience knowing more about what’s going on than she does.  It’s to Ryder’s credit then that she stays wholly sympathetic, and while an argument could made that the character is wilfully blinding herself as to what’s going on, we can at least see why she might be.  There’s a needy vulnerability to Ryder’s performance, we sense that all she wants is 2.4 children, a picket fence and a loving husband - easy, comforting middle class normality.  Her desires, as far as I’m concerned, are the most interesting thing here.  Vromen shoots Kuklinski’s suburban life with a soft lens; it always seems to be sunny outside and his family are happy, healthy and beautiful.  But the foundations of this easy life are sunk deep in pits of blood and terror and corruption begins seeping gradually upwards.  

A Kuklinski family day out.
It’s instructive to examine Kuklinski’s cover story; he claims he’s a currency trader, waiting for disaster and then capitalising on the financial fluctuations.  In a clever bit of screenwriting, Deborah gets to explain what Kuklinski purportedly does to a group of friends and uses the example of a typhus epidemic as a way to make money.  Even in the carefully constructed fiction she inhabits, death is never too far away.

The disconnection between a man spending his day murdering people and going home to a wife and children feels slightly fantastical here, and there’s a temptation to view it as the unique factor that makes the story notable.  But this exact scenario plays out each and every day in upstate at Hancock Field Air Base, in upstate New York. This is a drone control centre where operators can icily and dispassionately eliminate people on the other side of the planet, then clock off, go home and read bedtime stories to their children.  The parallels feel too timely and accurate to dismiss, so is Vromen condemning the hypocrisy of killing by day and loving by night? Is this a condemnation of these soldiers as unblinking, unfeeling robotic killing machines?

Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) - another excellent performance.
Unfortunately this question goes unanswered and this is where The Iceman stumbles.  Put simply, the film goes way too far in sanitising Kuklinski’s actions, to the point where we find ourselves standing right in his boots, worried about being captured and in a state of tension as to whether he will get away with his crimes.  There’s nothing wrong with making an audience complicit with a serial killer, but there has to be some condemnation of this complicity.  The first example that comes to mind is Remy Belvaux’s 1992 film Man Bites Dog, where a documentary crew (and by extension the audience) become involved and thrilled by a hitman’s increasingly monstrous behaviour.

The carnage in that film reaches such a grotesque peak that we have no choice but to disconnect with the material and evaluate why we got involved at all.  That never happens in The Iceman, for all the murder scenes it’s a relatively bloodless film.  The killings are quick and to the point, with people going from life to death as easily as you’d flip a light switch.  Even when we see Kuklinski carving up corpses the body parts are depicted as abstracted pieces of meat.  

This is disingenuous, as are the perfunctory nature of Kuklinski’s murders.  In terms of morality the film tries to squeak by on the justification that it’s just recreating reality.  But the brutal reality of this man has been censored.  The real Kuklinski was famed for his sadistic torture and brutality - he described one of his most notorious hits thusly: he cut his victim lightly on multiple places and tied them up in a rat-infested sewer.  The rats then ate the man alive, a process Kuklinski captured on motion sensor nightvision camera because his pay would increase with proof the man suffered before dying.  We don’t see any of this sort of thing, because this film hinges on us being emotionally engaged with our ‘hero’.  

Did I mention how great Michael Shannon is here?  He's amazing.
This engagement with Kuklinski made me feel a little nauseous.  Despite Shannon’s and the director’s best intentions, they’ve created a film where a sadistic monster is, perhaps for want of a better word “cool”.  He’s tacturn and highly skilled in the same manner as Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’, and has a rigid “no women, no kids” rule that horrifyingly, the film appears to respect as a kind of nobility, casting Kuklinski in a favourable light to other, more degenerate hitmen.  He even gets a tragic back story, which goes part of the way to justifying his crimes. This is fucked up! 

It feels instinctively wrong to condemn a film on moral grounds, especially one with two outstanding performances at the centre and some effective, intelligent directing.  But the way the film inadvertently makes a hero of its subject is repugnant.  The Iceman has a lot going for it, but it exists in an ethical black hole with too few redeeming qualities to make it even a remotely worthwhile experience.


‘The Iceman’ is on general release from June 7

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