The Iceman: A true-crime story in shorthand

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Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta play real-life criminals Richard Kuklinski and Roy DeMeo
  • Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta play real-life criminals Richard Kuklinski and Roy DeMeo
When did people start saying "porn" as shorthand for pornography? It sounds like a product of the home video era, when pornographic movies became easier to come by: a flat, workaday term for an increasingly familiar commodity. Compared with the more juvenile "porno," with the negative sound of its second syllable, it's difficult to imbue "porn" with any sense of outrage or taboo. This may explain why I have trouble imagining anyone using the term before the 1980s. Even among its makers or staunchest defenders, did anyone predict it would ever become so commonplace?

I thought about this while watching a new movie called The Iceman, which opens commercially tomorrow. In it people utter the word "porn" during two scenes, one set in the mid-60s and the other in mid-70s; at both points it sticks out like a sore thumb. In the first instance it's spoken by Ray Liotta, who plays the New Jersey mobster who hires Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) as his hit man. When they first meet, Kuklinski copies hard-core movies for a living, leading Liotta to sneer, "How long you been dubbing porn?" I suppose it's not implausible that in 1964 the sleazeballs who profited off stag reels were so familiar with their product that they'd employ this blase term. But where would they pick it up? Wouldn't they be used to saying "stag reels" or "blue movies" (or some other such euphemism) like everyone else?

This moment occurs fairly early in the film, when I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. The Iceman opens with a remarkable scene between Shannon and Winona Ryder, which depicts the first date between Kuklinski and the innocent young woman who will become his wife. Both are shy people resigned at an early age to unremarkable lives—the actors make their lack of eloquence seem poignant, suggesting through body language the feelings they're afraid to articulate. The somber lighting, reminiscent of the Godfather movies or James Gray's work, makes their environment seem old before its time. There's an air of tragedy here: the smallness of everything on-screen—the dingy cafeteria, the strained chitchat—feels not just pathetic but inescapable.

The irony is that Kuklinski has a big future ahead of him: by 1986, he will have murdered over 100 people. Unfortunately The Iceman offers only the most banal explanations as to what would drive a person to commit such evil or how he could live with himself afterwards. The nuanced opening scene turns out to be a ruse. After the film establishes the basic contradiction of Kuklinski's story—his career as a mob hit man versus his ordinary suburban family life—Iceman just recounts its most shocking episodes in the fashion of a mid-80s TV movie. The only thing that keeps it moving, apart from an inevitable sense of lurid fascination, is the suspense of wondering when he'll get caught.

It's odd that a movie asking us to sympathize with a mass murderer doesn't acknowledge its own perversity. But as Iceman drags on, it relies more and more on familiar tropes to make Kuklinski seem relatable: he killed because it was his job, and he worked hard at his job because he wanted to provide for his wife and daughters. Never mind that he lied to his family about what he did for money or that (according to the movie's version of Kuklinski, anyway) he never seemed all that invested in their lives. Perhaps all the Godfather lighting is meant to imply that he's really a loving family man at heart, like Vito Corleone.

Even so, that doesn't provide much insight into Kuklinski's psychopathology, nor does it make his criminal record any less sickening. But the filmmakers lean on this received wisdom all the same, dodging any serious moral inquiry. (So much for the tragic characterization—that Kuklinski is so detached from genuine feeling that he requires violent outbursts in order to stay sane—suggested by that opening scene.) This seems related to the movie's anachronistic use of the word "porn," with its connotation of bored inevitability.

In case you're curious, the second use of the word comes about halfway into The Iceman, when Kuklinski and his wife are out to dinner with friends. Everyone except her seems to know about his former career in the film lab (leading one to wonder how naive this poor woman must have been). "So what?" says one of his friend's wives after blurting out his secret. "What's wrong with a little porn now and then?" Even though this scene takes place after Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat achieved some notoriety in the mainstream, it's hard to accept a posh middle-aged woman espousing such an attitude, especially in public. But at this point, the movie has foregone any interest in the complexities of real life anyway.

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