The American gangster is an almost a Terminator-like figure in cinema and TV: he just keeps coming and coming, and seemingly will not stop. Audience fascination with these amoral figures – who live outside the law but within a rigid parallel culture with its own codes and rules of engagement – has been endlessly analysed by critics and academics alike, and most arrive at a similar conclusion; in achieving the ultimate goal of capitalism, the acquisition of lots of money, which often requires overcoming substantial challenges, the cinematic gangster inspires a sort of perverse admiration in viewers.
The real Richard Kuklinski, aka ‘The Iceman’, was a contract killer who worked for crime families in Newark, New Jersey and New York City, and between 1948 and his final arrest in 1986 he is alleged to have killed between 100 and 250 people. The twist in this hitman tale is that for a couple of decades while Kuklinski worked as a professional killer, he was a married father living in a comfortable middle class suburb, while his family had no idea what Dad actually did to pay the mortgage, accepting his story that he was a successful businessman. As incredible as this story seems, at a time long before the internet and within a very traditional marriage, it was much more feasible for men to pull off a double life for as long as Kuklinski apparently did.
Michael Shannon portrays Kuklinski with his usual stoicism, expressionlessly moving through the world around him and taking everything in with his large, gecko-like eyes. He kills dispassionately (apart from the first murder we witness him commit), but it wasn’t his demeanour that earned him his frosty nickname. That came from his experiments in freezing the bodies of many of his victims and keeping them on ice for periods of time before thawing and dumping them, a tactic used to confound police attempts to determine times of death. The idea for this came from fellow hitman Robert ‘Mr Softee’ Pronge, who drove an ice cream truck for the innocuous camouflage it provided. Pronge, played by an unrecognisably bewigged Chris Evans, befriended and helped Kuklinski find new clients at a time when Kuklinski was discredited with the Jersey mob and basically out of work.
With support from Ray Liotta in familiar mode (and thus providing an explicit link to arguably the last great American gangster film, Goodfellas) and David Schwimmer in a rather unfamiliar one as a pony tailed, shell suited minion of Liotta’s, along with the expected period trappings and vernacular of an NYC/Jersey mob story, the film hits many of the marks beloved by fans of the subgenre, myself included. The film fails, unfortunately, to burrow under the skin of the monstrous and confounding Kuklinksi; one comes away without gaining any insight into the man, whether concocted for the sake of drama or drawn from the ample information that exists about the man. I learned more about Kuklinski spending ten minutes researching him then I did from the filmmaker’s perfunctory pass at the man’s formative years, as he opts to discard much of this revelatory backstory (the film begins in the 1960s, years after Kuklinski had commenced his murderous career), a necessary part of any attempt at empathising with such an aberrant personality.
With the classic gangster saga being re-imagined in a very vital and thrilling way in the past decade a by TV dramas like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, in order for a crime drama to achieve gangster greatness, it needs to show the heart and soul behind the machismo and the ritualised mayhem. As satisfying as it is on a number of levels, The Iceman’s failure to shine enough light on Kuklinski’s psyche prevents it from achieving the greatness it aspires to.