Directed by: Ariel Vromen.
Written by: Morgan Land & Ariel Vroman based on the book by Anthony Bruno.
Starring: Michael Shannon (Richard Kuklinski), Winona Ryder (Deborah Kuklinski), Chris Evans (Robert Pronge), Ray Liotta (Roy Demeo), David Schwimmer (Josh Rosenthal), James Franco (Marty), Stephen Dorff (Joey Kuklinski), McKaley Miller (Anabel Kuklinski), Megan Sherrill (Betsy Kuklinski).
Michael Shannon specializes in playing men who are haunted by their own inner demons – demons that they eventually find impossible to control, and makes them grow increasingly paranoid and unstable throughout the movie. Think of how Oliver Stone used Shannon, in the otherwise far too conventional World Trade Center, to suggest that his character – who in most movies would be portrayed as a hero – was heroic yes, but also unstable. Or watch him in various movies like William Friedkin’s underrated Bug, Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (where Shannon received an Oscar nomination) or Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. In his latest movie, The Iceman, Shannon once again plays a man haunted by his inner demons – but instead of outwardly breaking down, he keeps everything contained inside of him – never letting anyone see the real person inside – at least no one who was going to live. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, who was a Mafia hit man for years, and killed countless people in various ways, some simple shootings or poisonings, and some in the most sadistic fashion you can think of. Kuklinski feels no remorse for what he did – but for the entire running time of the movie, he never lets his family see the real Kuklinski. When, inevitably, it all comes crashing down on him, his wife and kids are stunned. They thought he was a nice guy. It is another great performance by Shannon – too bad the movie surrounding him is nowhere close to his level.
When we first meet Kuklinski, he is shooting pool in a bar, and when he wins the game, his opponent refuses to pay him the money he owes. He thinks Kuklinski cheated him, but when Kuklinski gets upset, the man wisely decides to pay him the money – but then unwisely decides to insult Kuklinski’s girlfriend Debra (Winona Ryder). Kuklinski bides his time, and when he sees his opportunity, the man pays with his life. It is the first of many killings we will see in the movie.
Soon, Kuklinski comes to the attention of Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), a gangster who traffics in porn that Kuklinski illegally makes copies of. Demeo is impressed when he and his goons threaten Kuklinski, but instead of acting like most men do faced with this situation, and begging for mercy, Kuklinski holds his ground. After testing him – Kuklinski passes with flying colors – Kuklinski leaves his job dubbing porn movies, and instead goes to work for Demeo. If Demeo needs some money collected, Kuklinski gets the assignment. If Demeo needs someone killed, Kuklinski gets that assignment as well. He’ll kill anyone – as long as they are not a woman or a child – and he’ll do it anyone you want him to.
Shannon is all controlled fury in this movie. There is a madness in his eyes, but he keeps his voice calm. He is sure of himself, confident that he can do anything and get away with it. He loves his family – will truly do anything for them – but the rest of humanity he can without. We only get glimpses into his past – especially in the one scene involving his brother (Stephen Dorff) who Kuklinski disowns because he raped and murdered a child. Kuklinski is a monster, but one who is able to keep that a secret when he wants to. This is a great performance by Shannon – really the reason to see the movie.
The Iceman also boosts an impressive supporting cast, all doing fairly good work. Dorff has a memorable one scene cameo as Kuklinski’s brother, as does James Franco as a sleazy porn director. David Schwimmer isn’t given much to do other than look like an idiot with his cheesy 1970s mustache/pony tail/leisure suit look, but he is still hilarious every time he’s on screen. Ray Liotta can do this kind of gangster role in his sleep – he seemingly plays it a couple of times every year, but in Demeo he gets one of his better recent roles. While this movie won’t be the comeback role that Winona Ryder is hoping for, she dutifully plays the “wife” role well. Best of all has to be Chris Evans, almost unrecognizable as perhaps the only contract killer crazier than Kuklinski himself.
And yet, while I admired the performances of the entire cast, I never became truly involved with the movie itself. Perhaps it’s simply because at this point, I’ve seen so many gangster movies, that unless one is truly exceptional or offers an original viewpoint, it’s hard to get excited about it. Or perhaps it’s because having read Philip Carlo’s excellent true crime book The Iceman, and seen the infamous HBO interviews with Kuklinski, I knew that more of this movie was fiction than fact. In reality, Kuklinski was a prolific serial killer (by his own estimates 50-65 people) before he became a Mafia hit man, and more troubling, in real life Kuklinski regularly hit his wife, and although he never hit his kids, they were terrified of him. While they didn’t know what he did for a living, they were not surprised when it all came out – they certainly weren’t the innocent people who thought their husband/father was just a regular business, and a loving as they are portrayed as here. I haven’t read the book this movie is based on – by Anthony Bruno – because Carlo’s book is much more highly thought of (and is apparently becoming a movie in its own right, starring Mickey Rourke, who looks much more like Kuklinski than Shannon did). But I don’t think that’s it – I readily admit that even the best movies that are said to be “based on a true story” or more often than not more fiction than fact, and it doesn’t normally bother me. Here though, the story just seems too pat, too predictable, too easy. I ended up wanting to like The Iceman much more than I actually did. There is no doubt that Michael Shannon is brilliant in this movie – I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to its lead performance.