Responsible for over 200 murders, spanning three decades, Richard Kuklinski is a Wikipedia entry worth reading. Arrested in 1986, having led a duplicitous life as contract killer, all whilst living the life of a volatile family man, this is the diluted version of true events, based on Anthony Bruno’s book, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, and featuring a pitch perfect, shark in human skin performance from the screen consuming, Michael Shannon.
Introduced as an insular specimen, Kuklinski works as a film print assembler for a pornographic film company, a fact he embellishes as “Disney cartoons” when meeting wife-to-be, Deborah (Winona Ryder). A missed deadline leads him into the company of Gambino crime family soldato, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), with whom he forms an initially reluctant, but intrinsically comfortable working relationship as a paid hitman. The film then charts his one-man killing crusade, family man juggling act, right through to his eventual reprimand (not a spoiler, the opening sequence is Kuklinski testimony).
It’d be unfair to call Ariel Vromen’s film a one-man-show, but Michael Shannon’s front-and-centre prominence and ease with which he demands the audience’s attention, drive what could so easily have been another by-numbers gangster biopic, beyond the confines of its genre comfort zone, towards becoming a must-see recommendation.
His take on Kuklinski isn’t much of a stretch beyond roles with which you’d already associate Shannon, and it’s a turn which shares many thematic similarities with his Boardwalk Empire prohibition officer, so the ease with which he slips between the façade of awkward normality – his early exchanges with Winona Ryder exude a surprising chemistry – and the cold mechanics of being a killer, are requisitely uncomfortable. As a man struggling to wrestle with his own unavoidable fate, a genetic make-up which has already seen his brother (Stephen Dorff) incarcerated, there’s nobody quite like Shannon when it comes to depicting a man struggling to conform to a moral code, uncomfortable in his own skin.
In his shadow are the likes of Ray Liotta, doing what he does best as the scuzzy Mafioso; unhinged and bug-eyed. David Schwimmer, drifting in-and-out of the narrative, but still impressing despite the screenplays assumptions that we should know a little more about his ambitious tracksuit wearing ganster. And probably the most successful of the supporting players, an almost unrecognisable Chris Evans, as a competitor-cum-partner in the assassination game, injecting some much needed momentum into the increasingly repetitive structure of the script.
The Iceman’s biggest flaw is its screenplay; the story has enough scope in terms of characters and time span, but Vromen decides to rely heavily on montage and the allure of his leading man, especially during the films cyclical mid-section, and then dip in-and-out of the timeline to focus on a particular hit, none of which carry the weight of Kuklinski’s first uncomfortable kill.
Stylistically it aims for Mean Streets, with the grimy visuals and prominence of the intense soundtrack, or at least an unavoidable Scorsese vibe, but the short running time doesn’t allow it such weight or resonance. When the FBI sting occurs during the films rather deflating conclusion, you can’t help but feel it might have been beneficial to have been privy to more of the efforts to track Kuklinski down, add an element of pursuit to the predictable nature of the story. Either that or afford more time to his homelife, because after initially impressing as the gangsters moll, Winona Ryder vanishes from proceedings altogether, popping up for the odd expository argument.
The retrospective potential for greatness undermines the genuinely enjoyable experience that you’ll have watching The Iceman, but by the time justice is done you’ll wish that the material could have reached the towering heights of Shannon’s monstrous performance.