REVIEW: The Iceman [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: May 3rd, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
Director(s): Ariel Vromen
Writer(s): Morgan Land & Ariel Vromen / Anthony Bruno (book) / Jim Thebaut (documentary)

“I don’t believe in bad luck”

Arrested in 1986 after three decades of murdering an estimated one hundred men, it’s hard to believe another thirty years were necessary before the story of serial killer turned hitman Richie Kuklinski reached the big screen. Based on Anthony Bruno‘s book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, Ariel Vroman‘s film brings us up close and personal to the family man’s myriad demons. Possessed by a temper so volatile he would send men to hell for simply rubbing him the wrong way, one could argue his professional outlet kept him sane at home. He killed because he had the urge, joining the mob was merely a win-win upgrade. And if not for the people he cared about most becoming threatened to the point of blind rage, he might have found a happy ending.

The Iceman (Michael Shannon) is a man of few words and fewer emotions. Love, joy, and pride are projected via a face of pure ambivalence, stoically hard so as not to warrant attention. Only when his blood boils do memories of an abusive childhood crop up to wrench his features into a fierce scowl, voice uttering the Polish numbers once used to count down his father’s brutal thwacks. Anger is his control state, his actions wrought unchecked until Deborah (Winona Ryder) and their children enter his life. They are his reason to continue living and the precious gift keeping him from joining his brother (Stephen Dorff) behind bars. Family is his sole possession besides his work; his daughters most likely the only masterpieces of creation more valuable than the bodies he’s hunted down and extinguished.

It’s an intriguing tale with a good mix of supporting players full of personality. His boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is a man not to be messed with like these guys always are, flanked by the boisterously short-tempered Scicoli (John Ventimiglia) and the raised from the streets since a little boy Josh (David Schwimmer). Roy is all about respect and professionalism so it’s no surprise he takes a shine to Richie after watching the porn dubber unflinchingly stare down the barrel of a gun while still explaining how the wrong committed wasn’t his fault. A trial run unfolds wherein Kuklinski must take out a bum on the street, he’s welcomed in as a new member of the “family”, and begins the lie at home of explaining their wealth comes from legitimate ventures.

As expository origins go, Vromen and cowriter Morgan Land do well in keeping things concise and pertinent to understanding where this troubled soul came from. Stories at the dinner table with old friends help flesh out his tenacity in winning Deborah’s heart, a visit with his brother in Trenton Prison exposes the tragic childhood and burgeoning homicidal tendencies, and a cut and dry hit used to help keep Josh out of trouble shows the moral code he’s always lived by of never hurting women or children. But after a montage of murders whisks us through the years to the beginning of his end, things become jumbled and stunted. Forced into retirement while Roy keeps a low profile, Richie’s lack of release brings his temper into the home instead. Sadly the film can’t capitalize.

This portion of the film feels rushed as the glimpses into Kuklinski’s life lose their naturalism in lieu of cramming all the details in. A scene occurs with no relevance other than explaining young Anabel and Betsy go to Catholic school; another expertly reveals Deborah’s frustrations as Richie flies off the handle before the next makes it seem nothing is wrong. As Kuklinski unravels, the story’s progression starts moving through time to reach its conclusion instead of keep us invested in the story. It’s as though the filmmakers thought the anger and increasing voracity of Shannon’s performance would be enough, forgetting the fact we had begun understanding these characters as flawed creatures doing what was necessary. To suddenly throw that out the window and only portray Kuklinski as a monster ruined its fluidity.

This is the inherent problem to biopics so intent on giving us as much information as possible in a very short window. The most interesting part of The Iceman’s story is when he goes against the orders of his boss to team with eccentric gun-for-hire Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) and yet this portion is glossed over. Richie finally comes into his own just as his paranoia takes over to force his hand and it’s as though it’s all inconsequential. Rather than show the psychological torment ravaging his calm, collected façade, we’re told he’s merely a brute shooting first and asking questions later. It wouldn’t be a problem if the part went to any other formidable presence, but Shannon is too good. We catch the anguish and internal contemplations but are never allowed deeper.

The Iceman is all about surfaces, utilizing stellar performances from Shannon, Evans, and Liotta without giving them meaning above disseminating historical fact. We’re held at arm’s length by learning details without the contextual motivations necessary to breathe life into what’s otherwise a stagnant series of reenactments. Vromen beautifully recreates the 60s and 70s aesthetic but relies too heavily on such appearance. The smoothly moving plot at the start is chopped to pieces to coincide with Richie’s fracture into emotionally charged decisions, but mimicking that coldness leaves us wanting. By protecting his family he actually increases his output of violence until the calculating madman quarantined for so long can no longer be controlled. There is potential in such a revelation paired with Shannon’s exacting portrayal to craft something great, unfortunately this isn’t quite it.

[1] Michael Shannon stars as Richard Kuklinski in Millennium Films’ The Iceman (2013)
[2] Chris Evans stars as Robert Pronge in Millennium Films’ The Iceman (2013)
[3] Winona Ryder stars as Deborah Kuklinski in Millennium Films’ The Iceman (2013)

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