A hulk of a man with a soft spot for sadistic murder, Polish-born American Richard Kuklinski gained fame in the mid-1980s as the The Iceman, a highly professional Mafia hit man who is alleged to have ruthlessly killed more than 100 men (sparing women and children by rule), while living a sham life as a banker and devoted Catholic family man, with a wife and two loving daughters, in suburban New Jersey. History suggests he received his nickname for hiding a body in an ice-cream-truck freezer, but watching Arial Vromen’s chilly thriller about the notorious contract killer, that only vaguely hints at the subtle ingenuity with which Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) dispatched his numerous victims for the mob over the course of more than a decade.
Plotted and paced as a character study rather than a full-blown action movie, the film starts with Richie as a well-mannered, if somewhat unwieldy, young man out on a date with the girl (Winona Ryder) destined to become the love of his life. He clearly has the physical strength to kill, but a romantic at heart, he manages to pull off his stone-faced charm in his favour. However, soon after a short period of conjugal bliss, Richie’s focus begins to shift dramatically as he becomes involved with troubled local mob boss Roy (Ray Liotta), who gives him the opportunity to make full use of his vicious, barbaric potential.
On paper, this may sound like a solid enough premise to make for an enjoyable ride. The performances are strong throughout, in particular Ray Liotta, but also Ryder as Kuklinski’s trusting wife, who didn’t have a clue what her caring, if increasingly abusive, husband was up to when he left home every day. But even a strong cast lead by an outstanding actor such as Shannon (Take Shelter) can’t diminish the feeling that there is something wrong with Vromen’s film from the outset. And this doesn’t necessarily apply only to the standard criminal biopic plot, which feels a little clumsy and heavy-handed in places. What ultimately makes The Iceman a rather underwhelming experience is the over-stylised period look, which tries too hard to re-vive the cool grittiness, low-tech feel and cliché of the classic American gangster and crime movies that ruled the 1970s, while throwing in a touch of film noir and some explicit violence for good measure. However, instead of daring to move further into darker and more mysterious horror territory, Vroman seems more interested in exploring the tragic duality of Kuklinski’s life as the proud, loving family man who killed for fun, for money, to cover up his own crimes, and to satisfy his inner rage. Yet, the calculated, episodic structure Vroman applies to ratchet up this high body count doesn’t quite keep up enough narrative momentum to carry the audience along.
In the end, The Iceman seems like a missed opportunity, as Shannon’s authority as the lead is undeniably tantalising. His performance is finely tuned and powerful as ever, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character. Kuklinski, it seems, was a man as much at war with himself as with the world that surrounded him, and Shannon, with his unnerving charisma and emotionless, beady eyes, resembles that intelligent, cruel, animal energy required to maintain a two-fisted façade that never revealed the true killer inside, until his arrest in 1986.
Watch the trailer: