The Iceman: Sociopaths Vs Psychopaths, and the Double Life

T iceHave you ever kept a secret from your spouse, loved one or lover before? Feeling guilty about that mutual fondle-fest that involved you and the hot new intern at the office during the Christmas Party? Or giving your wife’s best friend mouth favours behind her back after you had a fight about what bath towels need to go with the new rugs?

Well, you my friend have nothing on Richard Kuklinski.

A typical day for ‘family man’ Richie (Aka the ‘Iceman’) back in 1960’s New York:

7:00 am: Wakes up at the crack of dawn to put on his finest suit and tie with the help of his young daughters.

8:45 am: Kiss’s the wife and says he’s off to the bank where he works in foreign currency trading.

9:00 am: Dubs film reels of pornography at an abandoned warehouse for mass underground distribution.

11:30 ish: Ventures out from his robotic tasks at the warehouse to stab a rival in the throat with an ice pick in a darkened parking lot. Stuff’s that corpse into the trunk of a car like a rag doll.

12:30 pm: Have lunch at the local diner with some mob bosses.

1:00 pm: Go back to dubbing cinematic jerk-off reels at the seedy warehouse (aka “the bank”).

5:00 pm: Go’s home for the evening and tells the wife he made a shit load of cheddar on some sweet futures trading in Russian ruble’s.

10:00 pm: Pats his two daughters on the head before bed.

11:00-11:10ish pm: Makes sweet, yet confident tender love to his wife from behind, all the while keeping a straight face.

I was excited before viewing this film because I remembered studying the Iceman throughout University whilst doing a case study on Kuklinski for a final project. The case study was done with another peer at the time and was one of the most draining projects due to the amount of detail in the methods Kuklinski used to kill his victims through reports, pictures and account records. The film obviously doesn’t come close to capturing the full potential and detail of kuklinski, but it comes as close as any film could (or be aloud too).

Much more involving than the usual hit man thriller, the film The Iceman takes a deliberately personal approach to its characters that make it unusually involving. Of course, since it’s a film about mafia assassins, none of the characters are hugely likeable. But we’re able to identify with them because the cast and crew help us see their souls. And of course, this kind of character brings out the best in Michael Shannon.

He plays Richie, who in the early 1960s has settled down with his new wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) in New Jersey. She thinks his job involves dubbing Disney cartoons, but his projects are actually part of an illicit mob-run porn network. And when local boss Roy (Ray Liotta) asks Richie to work as his henchman, Richie proves to be surprisingly adept at murder. As more and more money flows into his family’s household he tells his wife even more lies about his job and where he works. This is mainly because he’s so good at compartmentalizing his life: keeping his family and work completely separate. But when things with Roy start turning sour and Richie turns to a rival killer (Chris Evans) for more work, Richie’s two worlds begin to collide.

Based on a true story, the film is chilling in its matter-of-fact depiction of a family man who ruthlessly bumps off anyone who falls afoul of the mob. And as the clashes in Richie’s life begin to escalate into something personal, the film cranks up the tension to unbearable levels. Shannon is mesmerizing in the role, letting us see cracks in Richie’s dispassionate surface as he’s required to kill friends and colleagues (including James Franco in a memorable cameo). So when his wife and daughters are threatened, he’s like a tamed wild animal pushed into the corner. We know what he’s capable of doing to protect them.

Often times we think of the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” as being interchangeably to describe people who have no conscience and act with no regard to others; in fact, the terms were once interchangeable. Now however, a “psychopath” is usually used in regards to an individual who has crossed the line into the criminal element, while a sociopath is of little danger to those around them. A psychopath is the more dangerous of the two and one you’d never suspect a person being.

To explain it best, let’s look at what the two terms have in common. Both psychopaths and sociopath’s lack a moral compass. They are generally incapable of sympathizing with the feelings of others, and lack the set of ethics that tend to keep society from dissolving into a chaotic mess where everyone only looks out for themselves. They also have a non-existent or impaired sense of disgust, meaning they are able to look at things that would make another person turn away.

Now, for the differences and an important disclaimer: There are a lot of times “usually” and “often” are mentioned in comparing the two personality types. This is because there’s no perfect, cookie-cutter diagnosis, and not everyone will fall neatly into the categories they are actually put in. Although constantly progressing, psychology still does have a lot of grey areas.

With that said, we still need definitions. The term “psychopath” is usually used to describe a person that has crossed the line of moral behavior in a society. They’re the murderers, the school shooters, the manipulative cult leaders. They’re the ones mutilating animals just to see what happens. They’re also the ones that society views as a danger to others. On the other hand, a person is deemed a sociopath when they have the lack of emotion and ability to relate to others, but aren’t a threat to society. While they’re not as dangerous, they can still be destructive in a smaller, personal setting such as in friendships, romantic relationships, or in a family. But they’re generally not going to go on a killing spree.

Now the case of Richard Kuklinski is an interesting one because he for me is a perfect representation of how these two definitions become confusing and muddy when slapping them onto the Iceman. The main thing about Richie was that he was devoted to his family and would do anything for them; however, there is a tendency with socio and psychopaths to imitate normal behaviour.

The only time you saw remorse or guilt on his face were during his realizations that he couldn’t provide for his wife and kids. He just so happened to have a panache for murder and offing people in the most professional of manners. As for the nearly 100 people that Kuklinski put into the ground it is safe to say that he didn’t feel anything for them due to his psychopathic wiring for such things. They didn’t call him the iceman just because he was a stone cold killer, but it was more so due to the way he disposed of the bodies and skewing the time of death for the coroners by freezing them post-mortem.

Anyway, Kuklinski came from an abusive family, as his father Stanley Kuklinski was an alcoholic who frequently beat his wife, Anna as well as Richard and his brother Joseph. Throughout his tumultuous childhood, he often fantasized about killing his father. It was something he carried with him the rest of his life. By the mid 1950’s, Richard’s reputation had grown as him being an explosive pool shark, which silenced anyone who annoyed him. Richard Kuklinski goes down in history for essentially perfecting the art of killing.

His first kill was a gang leader in the projects near where Kuklinski lived. He beat the kid to death, drove him to the Pine Barrens, cut off his fingertips and smashed his teeth to cover his identity. He also burned an off-duty cop in his car after an abusive game of pool. By the time he was a late teen, Kuklinski would cruise the west side of Manhattan looking for bums, or the occasional overly aggressive gay man, to kill so he could study the different ways people died. He was equally lethal with a gun, knife, noose, ice pick or poison. He did pieces of work for Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family and would go on to do jobs for all five of the New York families. He became one of the gears that wound the Murder Machine, the renegade almost-Gambino crew that was led by Roy DiMeo, another sociopathic killer making his way in the world doing what he knew best. Kuklinski met quite a few psychopaths; he could have had a TV series with psychopath of the week.

The Iceman was a good film and worth the watch and research. It is essentially a character study of a Mafia hit man. It turns the notorious killer for hire into damaged goods and a fallen idol, the wise guy into a family man.

Side note: David Schwimmer plays a small, yet memorable roll, in this film as a greasy, pony-tale, jumpsuit wearing right-hand mob man that I found quite funny and was worth the watch on its own.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. jjames36 says:

    Good review. And great commentary on the film’s relation to reality.

    In some ways I agree. I think Kuklinski is well developed, Franco’s cameo is stellar and Vroman makes some interesting choices.

    In other ways, I disagree.

    But in all ways this was a fun read!

    1. cervifrank says:

      Thanks for reading as always. It was fun to write this one for sure, and brought back some memories of my academic years that I had with some of my best peers and friends during those times ( long sleepless nights of endless research and debates) .

      Franco’s cameo was indeed interesting and stellar like you said; he has played some interesting roles lately…I saw him in the film The Letter as well with Ryder and thought he was quite intriguing in that one.

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