Directed by Ariel Vromen
In Ariel Vromen’s new killer-for-hire docudrama The Iceman, Michael Shannon portrays notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski, a Polish hitman for the mob who murdered 100 men before his shocking arrest in 1986. Built as a character study and loosely based on a true story, the film struggles at times, toeing the line between reality and creative license, a decision that transforms the drama into melodrama. A spotlight on Kuklinski and his life is more than warranted, however, and Shannon’s performance elevates the material above its pieced together details and questionable editing.
Kuklinski himself, in a now famous prison interview, never actually tells the real story, bouncing back and forth between sociopath and loving husband. The Iceman is forced to do the same, making the Polish hitman an anti-hero who only cares about his family. Oh, he’s definitely certifiable, killing almost at will, but we’re not worried about him getting into trouble so much as we’re scared he’ll get found out.
Winona Ryder plays Kuklinski’s wife Deborah, who feigns ignorance when her husband’s mysterious nine to five life is brought up. It’s a fairly thankless role and Ryder, although perfectly suitable, never looks completely comfortable in her skin as a housewife and mother in 1970’s New Jersey. It’s their relationship that should be the heart of the film but the screen time is limited to mostly cliched arguments and posturing even though both actors do all they can in those moments. The question of whether or not the real Deborah actually knew what her husband was up to is still unknown which undermines the final reel of The Iceman as everything closes in around Kuklinski.
The most compelling storyline involves Kuklinkski’s side work with Robert “Freezy” Pronge (Chris Evans) as they banter and work together as freelance killers. Pronge and Kuklinski have an unspoken understanding, both living a charade where their family has no idea who and what they really are. Ray Liotta (Killing Them Softly) as real life Roy Demeo is also a standout but Demeo feels like a caricature at times rather than a character who probably has enough material for his own movie. David Schwimmer as Demeo’s right hand man doesn’t feel as misplaced as you might think and Robert Davi (Maniac Cop 3) puts in a memorable cameo as well.
Since this is not an accurate retelling of the events that transpired – the real story may never be known – Vromen and company have the luxury of going back and forth between biopic and pure fiction. This certainly keeps you guessing, but it undermines the dramatic moments because it feels more like a detective story at times than a film about the actions of one man and how it devastated his family. What’s true and what’s not isn’t important, so the supposed real-life events feel less important as well. The creative license taken causes you not to feel the stakes as much but it never goes over the top enough to rise out of some of the usual tropes and beats of the gangster film. Oddly engaging and weirdly romantic, The Iceman is certainly entertaining, it’s just a little confusing and doesn’t really add anything new into the mix. But then again, does it have to? It is just a gangster film, after all.
2 1/2 out of 5