A killer with a conscience is a character done to death in film. But with the talented Michael Shannon as the titular murderer, one might think “The Iceman” would offer an intriguing, or at least entertaining, tale. Unfortunately, the only thing that makes this film stand out is that it’s based on a true story.
Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski (Shannon) worked as a hitman for Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) during the ’60s and ’70s, only to be arrested in the ’80s for the crimes he committed. He earned his nickname from his sadistic method of freezing his victims, which counfounded the police as they attempted to determine each victim’s time of death.
Even though Kuklinski killed over 100 people, the film tries to evoke sympathy from the audience. Scenes show his love for his family, which includes his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their two teenage daughters. Yet, that is simply not enough to add any dimension to this character. Little attention is given to the reason Kuklinski is so violent. There is only one scene, in which Kuklinski visits his troubled brother in jail, that suggests there may be something dysfunctional in the family. This backstory would have been much more fascinating to explore.
The film delves further into clichéd mafia fare as we see the machinations with DeMeo’s gang and how its members betrayed Kuklinski. Unfortunately, watching Liotta play a mobster only serves as a reminder of his role in the far-superior “Goodfellas.”
“The Iceman” treats its dark subject matter so tamely that reading the Wikipedia page on the real Richard Kuklinski is more shocking. The film does not have the audacity to explore the figure enough to offer anything introspective. There are several actual interviews with the real Kuklinski the film could have drawn from if it wanted to portray a more gripping character.
In one such interview, Kuklinski discusses how he beat his wife and threatened to kill his daughter. In “Goodfellas,” when we saw the main character abusing his wife, both his world and the film became darker. But in “The Iceman,” Deborah is merely a stock character, and her reasons for putting up with Kuklinski’s violent tendencies remain unexplained.
Nevertheless, the saving grace to the watered-down titular character is the performance of Michael Shannon, who glides between subtlety and explosive rage with finesse. The film also features some surprise, welcome appearances by David Schwimmer (“Friends”), who plays a naive member of DeMeo’s gang, an unrecognizable Chris Evans as Kuklinski’s accomplice and James Franco as one of Kuklinski’s victims.
Even with these strong performances, “The Iceman” will likely melt along with other clichéd mafia films in years to come.
Zack Grullon is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]