Mark Reviews Movies

The Iceman


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ariel Vromen

Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny Abeckaser, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, James Franco, Stephen Dorff

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 5/3/13 (limited); 5/17/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 16, 2013

The Iceman is conflicted about its central character. He's a family man, who gives his wife whatever she may want or need and sends his two daughters to private school. When he notices that his wife has been eyeing listings for bigger houses before the birth of their second child, he takes it upon himself to get a higher-paying job to afford one for his budding family, and after they've gotten the four-bedroom house she wanted to upgrade to, he started looking for bigger opportunities in real estate, namely a piece of oceanfront property in Atlantic City that's guaranteed to make his family comfortable for the rest of their lives.

He's accomplished all of this after surviving a childhood of abuse at the hands of his father—abuse that has left him almost entirely emotionless. At least, that's what the movie argues. The only thing in his life that provokes an emotional response out of him is his family. When he has a gun pointed in his face during the "interview" for the job that would eventually give him financial security, he doesn't blink; his face is a stone. The man is as cold as ice, his soon-to-be boss says, although that's not exactly where this man gets his eponymous nickname. He receives that title from the press after the discovery of the dismembered parts of the bodies of some of his murder victims.

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), by the way, is a cold-blooded, remorseless assassin for the Mafia. This is a fact that should lend some perspective to the movie's conflicted feelings about him, namely whether or not that outlook is justified. The screenplay by Morgan Land and director Ariel Vromen (based on a book by Anthony Bruno and the 1992 television documentary "The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer") doesn't avoid Kuklinski's terrible actions, but it does downplay them both in form (His early time as a contracted killer are condensed to a montage of bloody murders juxtaposed with him receiving payment) and in the through line of trying to see what makes this man tick.

It's one thing to attempt to understand a merciless killer, but it's another matter entirely to try to elicit sympathy for him. The movie has a difficult time distinguishing between those two positions, especially in the third act as he turns into force against his handlers, but it is more than slightly disconcerting to hear the music manipulatively swell as the realization that the only thing Kuklinski says he cares about is about to disappear from his life.

It's important to emphasize that our only evidence that he cares for his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and two daughters (McKaley Miller and Megan Sherrill) is that he says he does. The man is a sociopath and a pathological liar to the point that his family has no idea what he does for a living until his arrest. There's no reason to trust him on any matter, and the despite the movie's constant assertion, we see him indirectly put his family in danger through his work and directly in one scene in which he speeds down crowded streets while chasing a man who insults him and his family after Kuklinski distractedly hits the man's car.

It's not so much a matter of love as it is of possession. We see it in the third scene of the movie, which begins in 1964 and ends with his conviction in 1988 (with short bookend scenes of him in prison at some time after that). After taking Deborah out on their first, awkward date, he plays pool with some friends at a bar, and a random man calls Deborah a prude. Kuklinski waits until the man gets into his car, opens the door, and slits his throat.

At the time, Kuklinski's job is dubbing porno movies (He tells Deborah he does the same job but for cartoons; she doesn't find out the truth for a decade). When a delivery is late, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the head of the crew running the operation for the crime family, comes by to threaten him but winds up offering him a job as an enforcer after noting that Kuklinski doesn't react to a gun in his face.

Years pass in a flash, with plenty of scenes of Mafia politics, and Kuklinski has carved out quite the life for himself and his family. It all starts to go downhill after he spares the life of a witness—a young woman—to one of his murders and eventually teams up with the mysterious Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), another hitman who drives an ice cream truck and freezes the bodies of his victims, to keep the money coming in after Roy decides to keep a lower profile.

Shannon's chilling performance paints such an uncompromising portrait of Kuklinski that the movie's confused attitude toward the character is even more confounding. The Iceman tries to give us a complex view of a fairly simple character and winds up in the territory of misguided simplification.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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