When you see in a film synopsis that Michael Shannon is going to play a serial killer/hitman, it’s safe to assume that you are poised to see an amazing performance. And, yes, in Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman (Vromen co-wrote with Morgan Land), Shannon more than fulfills your hopes and dreams as real-life serial killer turned mob hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski. He claims to have killed over 100 men over the course of his killing career while at the same time being a fiercely devoted husband and father to his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and their daughters. The film perhaps suffers from some structuring issues, making Kuklinski’s story somewhat fuzzy at times, but on the whole, it delivers with its amazing performances from Shannon and the stellar ensemble cast, as well as with its beautiful, unrelentingly dark cinematography.
The film opens with Kuklinski taking his wife-to-be on their first date – it’s awkward but sweet. He tells her that he dubs Disney cartoons, when in fact, he bootlegs pornographic films. Later on when he is playing pool with his friends, one makes a lewd comment about Deborah, so Kuklinski matter-of-factly follows him out to his car and slits his throat, his facial expression never changing. He soon marries Deborah and has a potentially dangerous run-in with his boss, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who senses a certain darkness in him. Demeo closes down the porn sector of this mafia’s business and instead recruits him to be a mob hitman after Kuklinski passes his audition (of killing a random homeless man) with steely-eyed, flying colors.
Kuklinski’s tale, as told by the film, is an interesting one, since his motivation from killing is two-pronged. He needs the cash from it to provide for his family, moving them from a small New Jersey apartment to a cushy suburb. Also, he needs to kill to unleash the deep-seated rage within him which comes from a childhood filled with cruel parental abuse. There is a telling scene, in which Kuklinski hasn’t killed in a while and he acts violently in front of his family for the first time, chasing down a driver who insulted Deborah. Killing is his release.
Post affiliation with Demeo, Kuklinski becomes involved with another hitman, nicknamed Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) due to his penchant for storing dead bodies in the ice cream truck that he drives. Kuklinski does the hit for Mr. Freezy and they split the profits, but but when they make the mistake of crossing Demeo with one of their jobs Kuklinski’s secret life as a killer starts to bleed into his life as a husband and father.
In recounting Kuklinski’s trajectory from serial killer to mob hitman, the film does make a few missteps. The man was a serial killer prior to his mob affiliation, but that’s hardly made clear in the film aside from his brother (Stephen Dorff) remembering how Kuklinski tortured and killed animals as a child. Perhaps more time should have been spent on his pre-mob days, but I suppose Vromen wanted to spend more time examining Kuklinski the family man versus Kuklinski the hired killer. Another scene featuring a hit on Marty Freeman (James Franco) has a significant outcome but a murky reason for being. The film could have used with some more exacting structuring in order to make the events better punctuated.
Issues aside, the cast is so fantastic that is difficult to take your eyes from the screen. Shannon is pitch perfect as Kuklinski. He’s unrepentant for his crimes but concerned that his family will discover his secret life. It’s a wonderful feat on Shannon’s part to make such a seemingly unfeeling character like Kuklinski appear so vulnerable and loving. There is a great moment in the film where his two daughters interrupt their parents mid-passionate coitus. He’s just like every other hardworking father in this world… just one with a dangerous darkness inside. This all sounds quite Dexter-ish, but unlike that show, this film wisely doesn’t dwell too much on the past to explain the present.
It’s also so incredibly refreshing to finally see Ryder on the screen in a role that is worthy of her talents. Deborah is seemingly so fragile and sweet, but she is also an incredibly loyal, supportive wife with an inner strength that doesn’t resort to throwing Kuklinski out on the street when he has his fit of rage. Liotta is also great here as a man who’s almost as ruthless at The Iceman himself. And David Schwimmer, nearly unrecognizable from his Friends days, pudgy with a long ponytail and mustache, even impresses as Demeo’s lackey, Rosenthal.
Bobby Bukowski’s consistently dark cinematography is also a major standout here, as it reflects the obvious violent, seedy world of the film. The sepia-tinged colors even bleed into the otherwise happy world of Kuklinski’s suburban life, but are at their deepest and most beautiful in the night scenes, when Kuklinski does his dirty deeds. Also of note are the amazing period costumes by Donna Zakowska. This attention to detail in the film is quite impressive and really creates an immersive film watching experience.
The Iceman isn’t perfect, but the combined strengths of the acting performances, as well as the overall look of the film, make it easy to gloss over some of its issues. As you would probably guess, Shannon is incendiary in the title role – easily one of the best actors of his generation, it’s rather exciting to watch him dip into his talents, making a character simultaneously frightening and vulnerable, a difficult juxtaposition to convey.
The Upside: Great performances all around – Michael Shannon creates a fully-fledged character in Kuklinski and Winona Ryder finally has a role deserving of her talents. Also, beautiful, unrelentingly dark cinematography.
The Downside: Some of Kuklinski’s story gets a little fuzzy over the course of the film, which is probably due to some structuring issues.
On the Side: The real Kuklinski looked significantly different than as portrayed in the film – at the time of his arrest, he was 300 pounds.