‘The Iceman’ tells the true story of mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, based on the book ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’ by Philip Carlo. He is said to have murdered over one hundred people, mostly contract killings but some for pleasure or just because he could; all of which he kept hidden from his wife and two daughters, with whom he lived with up until his arrest in 1986. Michael Shannon stars as Kuklinski, alongside Winona Ryder as wife Deborah, and Ray Liotta as crime boss Roy DeMeo. The relatively unknown Ariel Vromen directs with a clear, yet unoriginal vision, the style brooding but slick, the violence bold and frequent, but does it stack up alongside the many gangster films that have come before it?
To think a man can keep his dark line of work completely unnoticed from his loved ones suspends disbelief, which can lead us to forget we’re watching an adaptation of real events. Kuklinski initially balances life as a caring family man, and as an evil assassin with relative ease but the moments where his two lives bleed together lend the film its most memorable scenes. Notably, as the journey home from a family ice skating outing is interrupted by an argumentative foul mouthed motorist, Kuklinski sees red when his wife is threatened, showing a glimpse of his hidden persona, but not enough to garner suspicion of the true depth of his disturbed state of mind. The character study raises the question of whether or not he was truly mad. This is alluded to when he visits his jailbird brother, imprisoned for killing a little girl. Is the destructive sickening condition genetic, or brought on by an upbringing filled with ill-treatment and abuse? Instead of exploring these issues in full, ‘The Iceman’ choose a more conventional gangster film structure, a loose biopic stitched into familiar plot. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and as an addition to the heavily used genre, it is well above average.
Borrowing from crime drama masters such as Scorsese and Mann, the violence is strong and bloody, but handled well and without overdoing it. A lot of visual contrast is effectively implemented, dark silhouettes in doorways of light, aesthetically representing the constant crossovers between his two facades. Due to the complex central character and Shannon’s portrayal, the story maintains a bubbling intensity throughout, and although the dialogue is less than wordy, and at times from Kuklinski, monosyllabic, when the tension boils over, it is a delight. Taking aspects from his troubled Boardwalk Empire character, Nelson Van Alden, Michael Shannon steals every frame he is in, and furthers his reputation as a magnificent villain. Despite his questionable facial hair, he can be forever taken seriously in his role, chillingly dispatching of victims, earning the ambiguous title he was given by the media. The name coming partly for his unnerving expression, and partly for his trademark of freezing corpses only to dispose of bodies years later to prevent traces of his crimes. By the end, the deaths do become repetitive, but this maybe cleverly deliberate, showing that violence was a career choice for Kuklinski, the recurrence reflecting the day-to-day nature of his actions.
Aside from the eponymous role, Ray Liotta reminds us how good he can be as organised crime boss DeMeo. Fondly remembered for his depiction of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, here he switches sides, taking on a role more closely associated with the De Niro or Pesci ‘made men’ figures in the Mafia. After a string of average turns in one dimensional parts, Liotta is back on form, as a conflicted leader, torn between his Mafioso principles and his loyalty to weak link foot soldier Josh (David Schwimmer) of whom he feels responsible, having raised him as if he was his own son. Also impressive is Chris Evans, as Mr Freezy, a manipulative killer who forms an alliance with Kuklinski, introducing him to the use of cyanide as well leading him to earn his nickname. Mr Freezy, as you may suspect, also kept his victims cold, using an ice cream van as cover, serving from a freezer with human remains stored under the sugary snacks. Leading the support cast in Kuklinski’s not-so-violent segments as his loving but utterly clueless wife is Winona Ryder who put in a decent performance but alongside her co-star she appears rather anonymous, as she buckles under Shannon’s screen presence. The two daughters also struggle under the weight of their father, serving as an annoyance but are nonetheless important to the development of the story.
As a gangster flick, ‘The Iceman’ is entirely watchable. It may be predictable in where it ends up, but that does not take away from the path it takes to get there. The brutal killings are a joy, and the host of interesting side characters carry a lot of weight. Kuklinski is given a slight back story which could have been built upon, and although the character arc features a definitive beginning, middle and end, the potential is there to offer just a bit more if the character study was left to thaw a little longer. With Shannon, he’s shown he can do the multi-layered with past credits including Take Shelter and the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire, and we will soon see how he interprets the ‘superhero villain’ as the deadly General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Even if somewhat hollow in its investigation of the man, ‘The Iceman’ is carried out as immaculately as one of Kuklinski’s many executions.