Writer/director Ariel Vromen (Rx) has chosen an interesting subject for his latest film, The Iceman; a New Jersey native named Richard Kuklinski who served as a mob hitman and killed somewhere between 100 and 250 people between the mid 50s and mid 80s, all without his wife and kids having any idea how he put food on the table. Vromen’s film follows Kuklinski from the point where he met his lady love and first got into organized crime back in the 50s, all the way to his capture and incarceration in 1986. It explores his psyche, his methods, and the way New Jersey fashions have gotten increasingly more ridiculous as the decades have gone on. Oh yeah, and one more thing… it’s got Michael Shannon playing the title role.
Given what an intense, captivating actor Shannon has developed into over the years, any movie that puts him in a starring role is pretty explicitly setting up his performance as being its main attraction, so it feels necessary to spend a lot of time talking about how he does. Unsurprisingly, he’s good. Kuklinski was best known for being merciless and unflappable, and Shannon gets that across by doing a silent, stone-faced, De Niro type thing that feels authentic in its competence and menace. As his turn in Take Shelter proved, Shannon is best when he’s got repressed emotions boiling just beneath the surface of his skin, and the role of the dangerous killer playing wholesome family man gives him multiple chances to go from calm, to stewing, to exploding with rage.
The way this character is crafted does seem to handicap his performance a bit, however. In something like Take Shelter, Shannon was able to project a wealth of conflicting emotions even in mundane situations. And in something like his recent turn as a villain in Premium Rush, he was allowed to let his rage out at every turn and get completely unhinged. Both were entertaining as heck to watch. Due to Kuklinski’s reputation for having an icy demeanor, however, Shannon has to play most scenes here completely calm. He gets a couple scenes where his cold exterior gets broken through, sending him into a frenzy—which are the best of the film—but he spends far too much time with his mouth shut and his face still. To have an actor like Shannon at your disposal and not have him talk or emote feels like something of a waste. If even just looking at his huge head feels dangerous, why wouldn’t you have him start screaming and make things much worse?
The supporting cast is capable, but less than impressive, as most everyone is playing to type. Ray Liotta is playing that Ray Liotta version of a gangster that you’ve seen a million times before. Wynona Ryder is playing Kuklinski’s wife, and gets precious little to do other than be the typical, concerned hausfrau character. The only supporters who really do much to get your attention are David Schwimmer and Chris Evans, and that’s because they get to experiment with bad fashion, long hair, and ridiculous facial fuzz. Shannon is able to get in on that game too. Sure, he keeps the stony resolve, but every time his character has had a meltdown he seems to commemorate it by adding some new flourish to his goatee or sideburns. This movie is a masterclass in how to make bold choices with your facial hair. But the fact that the mustaches are the most interesting thing it has going isn’t much of an accomplishment.
The problem with the film is that it’s too much of an overview of Kuklinski’s criminal career. Essentially you get the Cliff’s Notes version of all the murders he commits, and you completely lose the context of why each one of them was horrific or heartbreaking. There’s a montage sequence where he must kill dozens of people, and it’s essentially all meaningless. Too often biopics bow to the pressure of covering a person’s entire life, and never find a focus. Any number of the killings in The Iceman could have been meditated on, but instead they all come and go before you can muster up much interest.
Another reason the film is less than effective is that it doesn’t give you anything to care about or anyone to root for. We view Kuklinski as being always in control, always the toughest guy in the room, so you never really worry about him. And seeing as he’s an unrepentant, murdering psychopath, it’s hard to imagine caring if he was ever put in danger. The best scene in the film is probably one in which a traffic accident leads to his flying off into a fit of road rage and involving his wife and daughter in a dangerous car chase into oncoming traffic. It works because the man has finally lost his cool in front of his family, which puts him in a position of vulnerability. It works because the ladies are innocents, and to put them in danger feels harrowing. If The Iceman had focused on those dynamics, been more of a domestic drama than a crime film, then it could have been something special. As is, it feels like a dry but slightly interesting history lesson about the life of an infamous killer. Shannon would have been better utilized in a movie about a hired goon called The Hothead.
The Upside: The Iceman has enough gruesome head shots and ridiculous ponytails to keep it from feeling like a waste of your time. And, in one scene, you even get to see Shannon fake his way through dancing in a nightclub.
The Downside: The usual biopic pitfall of covering too lengthy a stretch of the subject’s life is front and center here, and consequently you get a film that lacks focus and purpose.
On the Side: Kuklinski claims to have committed his first murder at age 13, when he killed the leader of a gang of teenagers who had been bullying him, knocked out his teeth, chopped off his fingers, and dumped him off a bridge. The Iceman introduces us to the man as an adult though, so don’t go expecting any child murder here.