In the amaranthine wastelands of the internet, there are very few videos creepier than the Richard Kuklinski interviews. Filmed by HBO from inside his high security prison, the Mafia-contracted serial killer talks with an unsettling calm about the countless scores of people he murdered with a ruthless efficiency, while maintaining his own bizarre code of conduct.
It is these interviews that formed the basis of the film of his life, The Iceman, in which Michael Shannon plays the role of Kuklinski. Recognisably opening and closing with re-enacted scenes from the interviews, many of the scenes specifically accounted by Kuklinski in those televised confessions feature in the dramatised account, lending an air of authenticity to the film’s proceedings. The role of repressed violence is a familiar one to Shannon, with echoes of his characters in both Boardwalk Empire and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? present in this performance. He captures the sheer physicality of Kuklinski perfectly; his threatening, lumbering presence coupled with his dead, unforgiving eyes.
It is with Shannon, unfortunately, that the success of the casting process ends. The organised crime syndicate that Kuklinski eventually becomes involved with is headed by Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) who is joined by his associates Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer), Mickey Scicoli (John Ventimiglia) and Leonard Marks (Robert Davi). There is supposedly nothing more frustrating for an actor than to be typecast, and the desire to want to break whatever role you have been associated is admirable. But to cast David Schwimmer as a Jewish gangster is one of the strangest – and least successful – pieces of casting in recent cinema history. Despite donning a moustache and pony tail à la David Seaman circa 2002, the association with his character from Friends is still far too strong for him to be taken seriously as anything else, let alone a dramatic role of this magnitude. As awful and shallow as that sounds, his physical similarity to Ross Gellar during the eighties flashback scenes is distractingly plain, as small amounts of laughter from the rest of the cinema audience every time his character spoke confirmed.
Worse still is Ray Liotta, whose perfection in the role of Henry Hill in Goodfellas has seemingly left him lumbered with almost every B-movie Mob boss character in the last fifteen years. But the thing with his character in Goodfellas was that he wasn’t a normal Mafioso. Henry Hill was the guy that everybody else liked, he wasn’t a cold-hearted killer like many of his associates, and moreover, he was extremely vulnerable and weak-spirited. He had his moments of violence, as anyone in his surroundings would, but in comparison to the likes of Pesci, De Niro and Vincent in that film he was almost normal. But the film industry’s insistence to unsuccessfully cast him in role after role as the heart-of-stone, tough guy is horrendously misguided, and has destroyed what was a career of enormous potential.
Winona Ryder and James Franco are fine in what small roles they have, but the emergence of Chris Evans as a long-haired, bearded, ice-cream-truck-driving hit man ensures the entire second act of the film plays out as little more than an elongated cutaway from Grand Theft Auto.
Somehow, by giving Kuklinski the back story of an abusive father and troubled upbringing, the level of fear the character inflicts on the audience is decreased. Although within the HBO interviews he is a myth of his own creation, his ruthlessness and lack of human connection instil an indescribable feeling of unease. But presenting an explanation – although not an excuse – and a motivation to continue his killing this feeling is removed, and he appears as little more than the extremely prolific mass-murderer that, in all probability, he was in reality.
The Iceman official website