NOTE: This review was originally published on September 11, 2012 when I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it today as it hits limited theaters this weekend.
The Iceman hints at ideas that would have made it far more intriguing than it actually is. We see different sides to the murderer at the center of the story from his pained past and the demons he fights throughout, but in the end the focus lands squarely on his murders. These murders may define this man in the media, but to explore him as a cinematic character additional depth must be added, otherwise all you have is a man that can’t give in to the urge to kill people, leaving very little else to explore or enjoy.
Based on Anthony Bruno’s novel “[amazon asin=”0595482163″ text=”The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer”]”, The Iceman centers on Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a man with a penchant for killing and he himself claims having killed over 100 people in the New Jersey area. We watch as he falls in love, gets married and goes from editing together porno movies to becoming a father by day and a hitman for low-level mafia man Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) by night. Throughout all of this he’s battling his own demons and what appears to be a preference not to kill, but it seems it’s an urge he has no control over.
There’s a small aside regarding abuse at his father’s hand and his brother (Stephen Dorff) who’s in jail for raping a 12-year-old girl, but these are just blips on the radar with the rest of the story largely focused on who Kuklinski is going to kill next.
To that point, he does have one rule — no women or children. This rule finds him letting an eyewitness to one of his hits go, a decision that finds him out of DeMeo’s good graces and eventually partnered with Robert Pronge (a nearly unrecognizable Chris Evans), a hitman in his own right known as “Mister Softee” for the ice cream truck he drives around in.
With DeMeo no longer utilizing Kuklinski’s services he no longer has an outlet for the evil inside him, Pronge was the solution. He was also the man that taught him the technique of freezing his victims so the police couldn’t use body temperature to determine the time of death… Thus, the nickname, “The Iceman”.
And that’s your story. There’s a lot of killing. A lot of anger. A lot of shouting and a lot of indecision and inner demons. It’s not entirely a bust as it becomes a bit more intriguing upon reflection, but it’s a hard film to recommend. There’s nothing necessarily “new” about Kuklinski’s story that couldn’t be covered in a “60 Minutes” segment and, in fact, was the focus of an HBO special that is actually far more terrifying than what you’re going to watch here.
Director Ariel Vromen penned the screenplay with Morgan Land and I think they missed an opportunity looking at the story from multiple perspectives. It’s easy to look at Kuklinski’s wife (played by Winona Ryder) and consider her ignorance as her husband lies to her face about being a currency broker while heading out late at night. You would have thought, though, that she would eventually grow suspicious, but I guess love has the power to blind us.
However, a look at the Iceman killings from the perspective of the police, as Bruno’s novel does, would have at least put a spin on the killings outside of the stone cold demeanor we get from Kuklinski. Our own horror at what he’s doing would only be amplified by reactions to those investigating the crimes and giving us details. All we really get is Kuklinski’s madman paranoia as he tries to keep things together. Eventually it devolves into just a bunch of killing and very little to connect to or care about.
Michael Shannon is suitable in the lead role, but like I said, this isn’t a guy with more than a couple of emotions. He’s either a wide-eyed crazy man or a stone-faced statue. There is some measure of emotion behind his eyes and Shannon brings it whenever he can, but mostly he’s a blunt force villain and little else.
The Iceman felt more like a direct-to-video release and in that regard it should do just fine with Millennium distributing, probably getting an On Demand release prior to a limited theatrical debut, collecting a few early dollars before arriving on DVD and Blu-ray. There is a market for this kind of film and people will find something to like about it, but in terms of the overall finished project it seems there was a lot left on the table that could have painted a far more intriguing portrait of a killer that’s almost impossible to explain.