Iceman, The (United States, 2012)

May 03, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Iceman, The Poster

The Iceman offers a chronological view into the life of its title protagonist... and what a life it is. Based on the book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by Anthony Bruno, director Ariel Vromen's film presents a slightly fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a serial killer who applied his unique talents to become one of the most successful of the mob's enforcers during the '70s and '80s. One fascinating aspect explored by the movie is its depiction of how Kuklinski is able to neatly compartmentalize his life: loving husband and father to an adoring family and homicidal sociopath to everyone else.

For Vromen, the key to making a compelling movie out of Kuklinski's story lay in getting the right actor to play the lead. Based on his chilling performance, it's hard to imagine someone doing a better job than Michael Shannon, whose Kuklinski, although never sympathetic, comes across as deeper and more introspective than the average mass murderer. In between explosive moments of rage, there are quieter instance in which he keeps his inner demons in check. He is violent around his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), and two daughters, but never toward them. In fact, it's clear his children love him dearly. It's a little disconcerting to see these four people in ordinary domestic situations, such as sitting near a Christmas tree opening presents.

The Iceman opens in the early 1970s. At this point, Kuklinski is doing some side work for the mob dubbing porn films while wooing Deborah. He's already an active killer - we're shown an incident in which a guy insults him and pays the price with a slit throat. Kuklinski's fortunes take a turn for the better when he begins executing hits for Gambino Family soldier Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). To his family, he presents his uptick in pay as a result of a career change - he's now in the currency exchange business. Deborah doesn't ask many questions since the new salary allows her to move into a "dream house" in suburban New Jersey. Meanwhile, working for DeMeo provides an outlet for Kuklinski's homicidal tendencies. When mob friction forces DeMeo to cut Kuklinski loose, he goes into business with another hitman, "Mr. Softee" (named for the truck in which he travels around). Their initially fruitful partnership runs into trouble when Kuklinski's temper gets the better of him and DeMeo goes after his family.

Although The Iceman does a fair amount of condensation and simplification of Kuklinski's life, it still presents a clear snapshot of the man. His background, however, is not well-explored (a lot of information is provided in a somewhat confusing conversation between Kuklinski and his jailed brother). The structure of the Gambino Family and DeMeo's position is also poorly clarified. Admittedly, providing a primer on the '70s mob in the New York area is far beyond the scope of a 106-minute movie, but it takes a while to piece together where DeMeo (and, therefore, Kuklinski) fits in the overall mafia picture.

The movie cherry-picks which of Kuklinski's vignettes to illustrate. We're shown him cold-bloodedly killing an innocent man to prove his capabilities to DeMeo. Also depicted is his casual execution of a man after giving him a 30 minute reprieve "to allow God to save" him. Missing is the whole Jimmy Hoffa affair. At one point, the real-life Kuklinski confessed to being Hoffa's killer. Most experts consider this unlikely; the movie doesn't even mention it.

Shannon's portrayal of Kuklinski transforms The Iceman from an intriguing true crime story into something more sinister and compelling. Winona Ryder, who has been selective in choosing roles in recent years, provides nuance to what is ultimately a clich├ęd portrait of the hitman's dutiful wife. It's a workmanlike portrayal but the screenplay limits her freedom to flesh out the part. Meanwhile, Ray Liotta does what Ray Liotta always does. Liotta has been so completely typecast that we know everything about his character the moment the actor shows up on screen. It's almost hard to believe he was sympathetic back in Goodfellas.

There's an element of Dexter in The Iceman, but the tale is more chilling because of its real-life origins. Before his 2006 death, Kuklinski confessed to killing more than 100 men. And, while there aren't that many murders in The Iceman, the number of frozen body parts being chopped up in one scene hint that Kuklinski was a busy man. The Iceman is a fairly straightforward portrayal of the title character with limited insight into what makes him tick and a somewhat sloppy ending (that requires captions to complete the story), but it's an unsettling piece that reminds us how even monsters aspire to living the American dream.

Iceman, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2013-05-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1