Film Review: The Iceman

Harsh, gritty—and increasingly grisly—this true-crime story dramatizes the life and bloody career of contract killer Richard Kuklinski: just another suburban dad who never brought his work home.

Jack the Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer had nothing on Richard Kuklinski, the soft-spoken New Jersey assassin who killed dozens more people than those two combined. Kuklinski killed so many men—reputedly upwards of a hundred—that The Iceman, despite its high body count, only shows a fraction of his murders. But it does so with the same mix of brute force and cool precision that its protagonist displays in his quick-strike executions, whether using a gun, a knife or his bare hands. As played with an unsettling tunnel-vision intensity by Michael Shannon, Kuklinski comes as close to a killing machine as any movie character in recent memory. Of course, the fact that he actually existed, in a reign of terror that lasted from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s, just makes him that much more chilling.

Hardly preparing us for the carnage to come, the film’s earliest moments depict Kuklinski’s almost touching awkward coffee-shop first date with future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder). He thinks she’s a “prettier version of Natalie Wood.” She thinks he’s a nice, funny guy who dubs movies for Disney. She’ll never find out until it’s too late that her big, bashful “Richie” actually dupes porn flicks in a back room—and that he’s a likely psychopath who will slash a man’s throat just for insulting his new girlfriend. Richie’s split personality—and the double life it demands—provide the mystery and the tension that drive this narrative. How can he keep his worlds from colliding? What will happen when they do?

Richie’s life changes forever on the day that mid-level mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), an unsatisfied smut customer, takes note of how Richie stoically handles some at-gunpoint strong-arming, and offers him a job as a messenger/enforcer/hitman. Thus begins the rapid-fire string of assassination set-pieces, several of which manage to startle, as much with their suddenness as with their savagery. Richie quickly evolves into a coldly efficient killer, snuffing out his targets as remorselessly as a king cobra. This MO stands in stark contrast to Richie’s at-home persona: a devoted spouse to his adoring little woman and doting dad to his Catholic schoolgirl daughters—all of whom he never raises his hand, or even his voice, to.

Giving a (mostly) still, quiet, smoldering-underneath performance, Shannon manages to convey, with various small smiles and tender touches, that this family man is as much the real Richard as that contract killer who carries out his assignments with Terminator-like relentlessness. Indeed, it’s when he’s killing that he doesn’t seem himself—that he seems outside himself. On auto-pilot. Just doing his job. But gradually, his two selves start to cross over. First, his temper starts erupting at home. Then he can’t kill a teenage girl who has witnessed one of his hits. Later, he tells a colleague, “I don’t kill women or children.” It’s a flaw of compassion that will prove to be the beginning to his end.

As director and co-writer, Ariel Vromen doesn’t go out of his way to psychoanalyze or sympathize with Richie. Mostly, he just gives us the facts (including a brief flashback showing that Richie grew up in an abusive home), and lets the action speak for itself. Vromen lends Richie’s underworld milieu a retro look and feel: dark, edgy, venal, anti-heroic, in slightly desaturated color, reminiscent of the cinema of the era during which most of this film takes place. Think the mean streets of Serpico, and the sleazily low-lit interiors of Taxi Driver. Richard Kuklinski could be the second cousin of Travis Bickle—minus the voiceover monologue.

The Iceman isn’t in the same league as those films. It lacks their dramatic depth and complexity—especially when it comes to its characters. Kuklinski is a fascinating, even compelling figure, even if we never fully get him. But we don’t see quite enough of the name-brand supporting cast to really get to know them. Liotta’s volatile gangster is plenty vivid, but not in any way that we haven’t seen him before. Almost unrecognizable in disco hair and mustache, David Schwimmer plays against any of his previous types as Liotta’s screw-up lieutenant—but he doesn’t get a chance to run with the role before he gets rubbed out. James Franco shows up for one meaty scene as a porn photographer of barely legal girls; his role is a glorified cameo. The same goes for Stephen Dorff, as Richie’s incarcerated brother—although he makes the most of his chance to go all volcanic during a tense prison visitation scene.

Only Ryder really gets enough screen time to blossom, and only then because she doesn’t waste a moment of that time, while evolving from prissily virginal bundle of nerves to a obliviously complacent career mom in only a handful of truly substantial scenes. In too many others, she’s a too-fleeting presence, in ever-changing hairstyles and fashions, her main function seemingly to mark the passage of time. It will be interesting to see what kind of cutting-room floor scenes of hers make it onto the “Extras” menu of the DVD release. One can hope, anyway.

In the meantime, this is always Shannon’s show, and he carries it. Having made a reputable name for himself on the Chicago and New York stages, he has more recently been a powerful, often scary presence as an onscreen character actor, in roles that have ranged from his Oscar-nominated turn as the mentally unstable dinner guest in Revolutionary Road to his still-evolving Treasury agent-turned-mob muscle on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” With this film, he’s given a rare leading role. And he proves that he belongs there.