(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)
Director: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, James Franco
Running Time: 105 mins
Synopsis: Inspired by actual events, The Iceman examines notorious American hitman Richard Kuklinski, who, in 1986, was convicted of murdering over 100 men for various crime organisations around the New York area. The twist to Kuklinski’s reign as an untarnished assassin is that he was a devoted provider to a family who had no idea about his profession.
Charting the rise and subsequent fall of Richard Kuklinski, one of the most notorious and prolific contract killers in American history, Ariel Vromen’s latest, The Iceman, sees the director realising actual events through various genre prisms and conventions, telling the true story of a man torn between a devotion to his family and the pangs of a frustrated inner psyche. Playing Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski is Michael Shannon, who, after a string of deeply conflicted characters – from Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter (2011) to TV’s Boardwalk Empire – brings his proclivity for stone-faced intensity to a character few others could justifiably convey. Surrounded by an abundance of excellent support, Shannon carries the film and saves it from the run-of-the-mill biopic it teeters on becoming, delivering a performance of blinding magnitude.
The Iceman follows Kuklinski during a period that spanned from the 1960s through the late 1980s, and goes about attempting to examine how his attempt to exempt his family from a secret profession ultimately leads to his undoing. The film starts with Kuklinski – a mild-mannered, stoic blue-collar porn warehouse drone, courting and eventually marrying his first and only love Deborah Pellicotti (an outstandingly on-form Winona Ryder) and quickly establishing a family he is determined to keep as far removed from his volatile childhood (under the rule of an abusive father) as possible.
However, when local mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) coaxes Kuklinski into embracing the darker sides of his outwardly passive demeanour whilst exploiting his knack for remorseless assassinations – to lucrative results, Kuklinski begins on a downward path he finds increasingly difficult to walk away from. As the fraught lines between providing for and protecting his family and sculpting his career as a prosperous hitman become evermore difficult to balance, Kuklinski learns that having everything comes at a fateful price.
Brought to gritty life by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, Vromen’s film is an impressive distillation of a man caught in the crossfire between intense unrequited rage and a palpable commitment to keeping his assembled version of the American dream alive, unspoilt by the sins of his parentage. In a role seemingly tailor-made for his style of brooding hostility, Shannon deftly handles the tonal shifts between pent up aggression and genuine sentimentality, portraying Kuklinski as a man governed by what he deems is the right thing to do for his family. Each side of his persona – the loving family man and the compassionless killer – are equally compelling, yet Vromen ultimately fails to find and identify a through line to fully join the two together, settling for a result that is more imbalanced and hurried than overly memorable.
Effectively a film of two distinct halves shared between a conformity to the forms of two genres, The Iceman works best as a thriller about a submissive man consumed by his thirst and simultaneous penchant for criminality. Yet, as it stands, Vromen’s film is a strongly acted, Goodfellas (1990)-esque portrait that is as plagued by the various cliché’s of the gangster genre as its protagonist is by a dark and frighteningly rendered appetite for flurries of violence.