THE ICEMAN Review

Michael Shannon has consistently proven himself to be a rather intense presence in films. No matter what type of genre those films might fit into it has always been clear that the guy has a certain set of abilities and he knows how to channel them into his characters with just the right amount of calculated terror, of social awkwardness, and just a hint of the scarce realizations of his own characteristics. He is a captivating actor to watch whether it has been in leading roles in smaller films such as Take Shelter or as a supporting character in major Hollywood productions such as his scene-stealing performance alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road. What he has done in his latest role is to meld those two types of mindsets together and bring to the screen the truly demented and troubled life of Richard Kuklinski, one of the most infamous contract killers for the mafia who is suspected to have killed at least one hundred people between 1948 and 1986. Shannon is an ideal actor for this type of role and he brings the layers of a man who is mentally able to go out and murder people in cold blood, sometimes allowing them extra time to pray to God to see if he will intervene, and then come home to his family and act like a typical family man who works a nine to five desk job. There is a consistent unnerving sense to Shannon's performance that elevates what is otherwise a rather typical genre film in The Iceman. Sure, there is a twist of particular intrigue surrounding this man and there are a few redeeming qualities about the film that help coast you through the hour and a half run time, but it is never enough to make this story as interesting as it should have been.

Michael Shannon as Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski.
Beginning in the early sixties we are introduced to Kuklinski as a guy in his late-twenties who is simply trying to pick up a girl, an innocent waitress at a small cafe across the street from where he works. The film lends focus to this conversation, this meeting and opens the film with it to allow the audience an opportunity to humanize a man who will go on to lead a lifestyle most will not be able to comprehend. It also gives us this conversation as Kuklinski's date that night, Deborah (Winona Ryder) will soon become his wife with whom he will share two daughters. Deborah is never let in to Richie's world, even from the beginning she is made to think he works on cartoons when he is actually bootlegging pornography. When he begins his work for various New York and New Jersey crime families (first with Ray Liotta's Gambino family affiliate and then onto higher level crime organizations) Deborah and the girls are still under the impression he works in finance. While the film makes its way through time as Kuklinski becomes all the more ruthless along the way and committing the typical crimes of getting greedy and getting sloppy things begin to fall apart, he makes more enemies, and has to kill more people. There are some interesting characters here, especially that of Robert Pronge aka Mr. Freezy as portrayed by Chris Evans but while we come to see what Kuklinski did and even a good amount of motivation, we never feel like the film really gets to dig in to the mans story, but instead as if it is more a cliff notes version of the his life. This is expected to some degree as you can't cover two decades of a life in just under two hours, but you can focus more on the psyche of a man such as this without telling a completely linear story that simply documents the actions of your subject without any measure of insight into his mind. The more interesting aspect of penetrating Kuklinski's mind only goes so far as Shannon's performance, which is solid, but with only so much room to move you can only expect to get so far.

I imagine Shannon drew much of his inspiration for the character and how he would ultimately portray the man from a series of interviews that aired on HBO and if you've seen these interviews you know it is sometimes hard to gauge when the real Kuklinski was telling the truth or when he was lying or even just messing around with the people that were conducting the interviews, but the one thing that was clear is that he seemed to truly care about his family and there was a genuine sense of love for them that almost comes through as a justification, for him anyway, as to why he had to do such things to support those that he loved. What is most chilling about the story (and about the interviews for that matter) is the lack of remorse that Kuklinski shows when he talks about having to kill people. The fact is there is no remorse, none whatsoever, and when Shannon shows up for the first time and is confronted with the idea of killing a man for no other reason than to prove a point, he does it and he is introduced to a life that can earn him more than enough money and comfort for his loved ones while requiring little from him emotionally. Killing was easy for him and the film depicts that while sometimes showing in gruesome detail just how little he was affected by the lives he'd taken. The film has a wonderful tone to its color palette and a strong sense of atmosphere as it jumps from the sixties, through the seventies and onto the eighties. The downfall for the film though is that it so easily hits all the beats of a mob flick that it never feels as exceptional as we're led to believe the title character is supposed to be in his line of work. On top of that the thing that bothered me most about the movie was as the film quickly transitions through time we are made aware of this mostly through Shannon's facial hair. It's as if each year of his life saw him sport a different design on his face and though it is clearly intended to help the audience realize the time shifts and represent the style of the era it also becomes increasingly distracting as it becomes all the more obvious. Small complaint, I realize, but you will notice it.

Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) confronts Kuklinski in director Ariel Vromen's The Iceman.
In the end, while this is a movie based on an intriguing character and has a solid ensemble cast doing their best to bring what the writers and director might have imagined Kuklinski's life to look and be like they have ultimately retreated to the ground they know instead of venturing onto something different, something a little more mythical in terms of storytelling rather than the concrete solid structure of every story we've seen like this before in this genre of movies. It would have been one thing to give the story a kind of dramatic tension as far as a certain goal to reach or obstacle to overcome, but writer/director Ariel Vromen and his writing partner Morgan Land have even decided to do away with those types of devices and simply give us the straight facts of Kuklinski's life as cobbled together from evidence and testimony. The magic of the film, what makes it at first engaging is the process of coming to know Kuklinski through Shannon's gripping performance and the fact this isn't a man roped into the business because he has a problem with drugs or women or gambling which are usually the immediate factors when you start talking about mobs or reasons to kill people, but instead it is fascinating to watch a man who preys on his fellow man for the sole reason of bettering his own existence. That is the initial hook, but that is only on the surface and we only get short glimpses of what has made him that way. Whether it be his younger brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) or a quick flashback we never do more than scratch the surface of his psyche. We are amused by the likes of people like James Franco showing up as a begging victim or an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as one of Liotta's flunkies, but as the film goes on and the actions repetitive there is no reason to stay engaged other than the hope that it might revert to answering the question of why they wanted to make this movie in the first place: what makes this man so interesting?