Richard Kuklinski. If that name doesn't send chills down your spine, it should. At 6 foot 4 and 300 pounds, Mr. Kuklinski was a New York mafia contract killer who spent decades murdering over 100 people (possibly as many as 200) before his arrest in 1986. Most of his kills were professional hits, but some he did just because he felt like it. Oh, and there's another twist: Kuklinski was a suburban New Jersey family man, whose wife and children had no idea how he was supporting them. The Iceman, starring an exceptionally unsettling Michael Shannon (HBO's Boardwalk Empire), brings Kuklinski's true and chilling story to the big screen.
"I watched an interview he did from prison," Shannon says, when asked how he prepared to channel the legendary hitman. "I saw the full, unedited, 20-hour interview. I watched it 10 times. That's how I got to know him. He's a very complicated person, very hard to get to know. You're never quite sure when he's telling the truth. He contradicts himself all the time."
"The way he looked at it," Shannon continues, "was that if he didn't kill most of the guys he killed, somebody else would, which is honestly the truth. The only thing that makes Kuklinski interesting to me is, ironically, the tenderness I believe he had in his heart under all the layers of rage and fury. There was this little fragment of tenderness that he wouldn't let go of. He had certain rules. He didn't kill women or children, and he did everything in his power to protect his family from himself. That's what I found interesting about him."
Academy Award nominee Winona Ryder became intrigued with The Iceman for another reason. "I'm not drawn to extreme violence, so I wasn't fascinated with Richard Kuklinski," says Ryder of her decision to portray Kuklinski's apparently clueless wife. "But what I did find interesting was this woman who stayed in this relationship with him for so long. It was so strange and interesting to me. What she knew, what she didn't know, what she chose to not think about. I was fascinated by her, and by their relationship. This film is obviously not a documentary, but hopefully people will take away a version of what happened. A look at duality and denial."
Based on Anthony Bruno's book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, this compelling thriller (opening May 3) offers a gritty and satisfying alternative to today's slickly-produced, big-budget studio films, and showcases fine performances by Ray Liotta and Chris Evans (The Avengers). There's also a memorable -- and rather disturbing - scene featuring the wonderful James Franco praying, at Kuklinski's request, for divine intervention to save his life. "That's a story that Kuklinski himself told quite a lot," explains Shannon. "An interviewer asked him if he had any regrets and Kuklinski said, 'Yeah, I got one. The time I made a guy pray to God. That wasn't right. I shouldn't have done that.'"
A tight schedule and a shoestring budget caused high tension on The Iceman set. Somehow, the crushing pressure worked in everyone's favor, fostering edgy performances and giving the film the boiling intensity its story demands. "We didn't have much money and we didn't have much time," recalls Michael Shannon, who is also set to star as Superman archrival General Zod in the highly anticipated superhero film Man of Steel. "It was like the Millennium Falcon trying to fly out of the Death Star before it blew up. A very nail-biting experience, but we made it."