The Iceman (2013)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It seemed somewhat inevitable that the story of notorious serial killer/mob enforcer Richard Kuklinski, known for killing over 100 people in the ‘70s and ‘80s, be told in a feature film. Based on the book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” by Anthony Bruno, director Ariel Vromen’s film “The Iceman” tells this story chronologically and the results are quite effective, if somewhat underdone.

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is presented as a man of two personalities—loving husband and father with a wife and two daughters, and dangerous killer with hardly a hint of remorse. Neither his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), nor his two daughters suspect his murderous deeds, although Deborah at one point is convinced that something is not quite right with her husband, because sometimes he comes off as emotionally distant. (“Richard!” “What happened to ‘Rich’?” “I don’t know!” A great exchange.)

Even while first meeting Deborah, whom we see him woo in an opening scene set in the early ‘70s, Kuklinski is a vile killer. Soon after his date, he’s mocked at a bar, which causes him to slit the scorner’s throat. Now, I must admit, at first I thought that was too unneccesary in showing that Kuklinski was to be a killer, but it is hinted that Kuklinski has already killed before that moment, so it makes a little sense that a simple thing could set him off.

Years later, Kuklinski has gone from dubbing porn films for the mob to executing hits for Roy De Meo (Ray Liotta) of the Gambino Family. (And I’m guessing Deborah doesn’t ask many questions about his job as long as he pays the bills and gives her and the kids a nice suburban house in Jersey.) But due to the escape of a witness to one of Kuklinski’s hits, Kuklinski is laid off, leading to him working with another hitman, Mr. “Freezy” (Chris Evans, hardly recognizable). But it turns out this partnership causes trouble with the mob, and so the lives of Kuklinski and his family are in jeopardy.

What helps make the portrayal of Kuklinski so chilling is that it seems that anything can cause him to turn to a new kill. And you already know how much this guy sickly enjoys doing what he does, so it’s quite uncomfortable when seeing him in a calm mood with his family. Granted, he’s never violent towards his family, but it’s still unnerving when you know what he does. How much does he enjoy killing? When assigned to kill a sleazebag who begs and prays for mercy, Kuklinski uses this for his own entertainment, allowing him a minute to pray and see if God will stop him. What an…iceman.

Michael Shannon is this movie. With the wrong actor giving the wrong type of performance this role requires, “The Iceman” would have been a much lesser product. I can’t think of any other actor doing a better job at playing the role than Shannon. This guy is freaking excellent. His portrayal of a homicidal killer is never sympathetic, but it comes across as deeper and more insightful than you might imagine. It’s emotion versus habit with him, only the “habit” happens to be constant murder. This may be the closest thing we get to a three-dimensional killer (go ahead—insert “Dexter” joke here), and Shannon nails it with this performance.

“The Iceman” has its flaws, though. Winona Ryder, despite trying, can’t seem to do much with the clichéd role of a hitman’s concerned wife. The mob aspects aren’t fully realized, so there were times when I was wondering which connections were consistent with whom or what. And I sort of wanted a few more scenes that got into the backstory of Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother (Stephen Dorff).

Oh, and by the way, was anyone else wondering why Jimmy Hoffa is never mentioned?

“The Iceman” presents the tale of Richard “The iceman” Kuklinski in a chilling, effective way with a great leading performance by Michael Shannon. It’s straightforward, doesn’t cheat in presenting past-and-future events (the story is told in order), and suitably unsettling. Even if I may forget certain other aspects about it, there’s no doubt that by the end of this year, I’ll still remember Michael Shannon’s performance and his portrayal of a real-life bloodthirsty killer.

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