The Iceman tells the story of Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who posed as devout husband and father until his capture in 1986. Known as The Iceman because he froze his victims in order to disguise their time of death (and probably also because of his ice cold demeanor), Kuklinski sometimes claimed to have murdered as many as 250 people between the late ‘40s and the mid-80s. (Including, he once said, Jimmy Hoffa.) This adaptation of Anthony Bruno’s The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer comes close to telling a compelling and memorable story, but fumbles somewhere in the process, leaving us with a flawed film that never goes as deep as the viewer might want it to.
There are memorable performances by the score: Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski with the kind of expert acting skills he brings to each of his screen performances, offering us an interpretation that frequently runs deeper than the script (from director Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land) sometimes allows. Ray Liotta, no stranger to mob movies, still manages to turn in a fresh performance as Gambino crime family member Roy DeMeo, even Winona Ryder comes within inches of delivering one of her best performances in ages.
Indeed, everyone involved disappears into their character, Chris Evans is unrecognizable as Robert “Mr. Freezy” Pronge (Kuklinski’s accomplice in a good number of the murders), Stephen Dorff plays the Iceman’s brother Joseph and in one short scene almost steals the whole movie. (He and Shannon have particularly good chemistry.) David Schwimmer plays the annoying loser Josh Rosenthal to the hilt, raising questions about why we haven’t seen the former Friends star in more films.
But none of these elements can close up the many problems The Iceman faces. We understand early on that Kuklinski has suffered unmentionable abuse in his childhood but it’s a shadow of a suggestion, such that we can’t quite decided whether it led him to become the cold blooded killer he became or it was just one part of his back story. Then there’s the problem of Ryder. She plays, off and on, one of the best naïve mob wives in recent memory, but she and Shannon lack romantic chemistry and at times you wonder whether she has a grasp on the New Jersey accent she’s sporting or if your ears are deceiving you when she seems to slip in and out of it. There’s something almost inexplicably sexy about her in her early scenes and so we come to understand how Richard was attracted to her, but never quite how she was attracted to him. (His brutishness?)
We also never settle in any one time period long enough to get a grasp on Kuklinski’s complexities. They’re hinted at: We certainly understand that he loves his family, that he might be out of his depth as a Pole in an Italian-dominated profession (where and when such ethnic distinctions matter), and that he, like many of his ilk, can only evade the law for so long. But those glimpses (again, most of them thanks to Shannon’s deft work) are too brief; we see them before being whisked away to a seemingly unimportant or less important moment on the Richard Kuklinski timeline. And then on toward another and another until the end.
This racing makes Schwimmer, Liotta, and Evans seem almost unnecessary to the story when, of course, they are so utterly and fundamentally important. And because we don’t spend nearly enough time with Ryder and Shannon as husband and wife (really, another scene or two might have done it) it becomes difficult to believe, in the final scenes, that she’s really as slow to catch on to her husband’s ways as the script makes it seem.
A little pause here and there to watch events come together and lives come apart might have helped elevate this from a good movie to a potentially great one. Moreover, the picture doesn’t really seem to be about much more than Kuklinski’s killing spree and ice-cold heart and, at some point, all the best films must transcend their immediate subject matter.
Bonus features include a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes featurette.