Why are we so intrigued by the lives and workaday processes of hit men? Is it partly an attraction to the stealth and chilling efficiency of killers for hire, the reality softened by the notion that the whole racket involves bad things happening to bad people? The question begs attention in The Iceman, about a real-life Mafia hit man, Richard Kuklinski, with a profound love of his wife and two daughters, whose day-job life inevitably intervenes in his family life.
As with The Godfather and TV’s The Sopranos, in this film, director and co-writer Ariel Vromen aims for that tricky balancing act with his film, blending the usual Mafia-movie hardness and sympathy for the devils on the screen. From the opening scene, rather than something grisly, we get a dose of tenderness and a hint of the vulnerable soul beneath, as our antihero (played with deadly aim and understatement by Michael Shannon) woos his future wife, played by Winona Ryder. “You’re a prettier version of Natalie Wood,” he tells her.
But generally, there is a wide divide between life in the suburbs bringing up family and his “day job,” which eventually earns him a life sentence two times over. She believes he has bumped up from working in “dubbing cartoons” to international finance, rather than a life in the porn industry and going upwardly mobile into the business of icing people. He is good at his job, cool to the point of earning his nickname “the iceman,” and, defying the code of allegiance to a particular “employer,” he tells a colleague, “I’m Polish. I work for everybody.”
Vromen also savors the period-piece accoutrements of the tale’s 1970s vintage, stirring in mod hairdos, retro fashion, the deliciously dated sound of ELO and Blondie, and, by association, cross-references to Scorsese mean-streets cinema of the day. Six degrees of Scorsese comes through yet another gruff role for Ray Liotta, who died so balletic-style in Killing Them Softly and has built a career around unlikable bad guys. (One wonders what he’s like in real life.)
But hip trappings and the gusts of familial warmth in The Iceman can’t chase away the chill of the 100-plus notches on this man’s gun. And that paradox is one of the film’s central themes, and riddles.