Notorious killer and devoted father, The Iceman is the true story of contract killer Richie Kuklinski who was finally arrested in 1986, and whose his family had no idea as to his dark deeds. The Iceman sneaks up on you slowly. At first you’re in danger of drifting off from the apparent cheesiness, the simplicity of the story, but what develops is a scary, strongly disturbing look at an individual on the edge.
From the first moments, we are privy to an older Richie Kuklinski, aged and obviously incarcerated, thinking back on his life. From there, the film ranges through the decades, beginning in the early sixties with a date between Richie (Michael Shannon) and a shy Deborah (Winona Ryder). The pair are awkward, timid, and she mistakes his quiet emotionless air for shyness. If only. Richie lies to her about his work, claiming to dub cartoons when really he works supplying porn to mafia connections. We witness one revenge killing almost immediately, Richie’s quick work in dispatching a man who spoke ill of Deb. But nothing compared to what is to come. Ray Liotta is the crime boss, Roy, who, after seeing Richie’s remarkably calm demeanor, brings him on as a hit man.
The film jumps ahead in leaps and bounds, Richie and Deb have a daughter, they purchase a new house, another daughter arrives, all set against a backdrop of violence that never intrudes into their daily life. Richie kills efficiently and without remorse, willing to do whatever necessary to continue making money and providing for his family in style. Things begin to escalate, problems in the business force Richie to begin accepting hit jobs from other crime syndicates, placing him in a delicate position with Roy. That’s when matters move from interesting to downright fascinating, tension rippling through every decision, all with the constant knowledge that it can’t go on forever, that he will be caught and this house of carnage will all come tumbling down around him.
Powerhouse performance by Michael Shannon, who is the anchor of the film, a larger than life statue of a man who towers over everyone, menacing and imposing. It’s amazing that he manages to make the character sympathetic, a loving father and doting husband who wants the very best for his family, all the while remaining a heinous murderer, able to kill without blinking twice, chopping up bodies left and right, casually removed from the immediate horror of his actions. Without a doubt, Shannon is one of the most gifted actors of our generation, and his work is consistently stunning. He’s just as good as ever in this film, though the story may be a tad below his abilities, it’s still nice to see the delicacy and intention he displays. Wonderful.
The supporting cast is fun, through and through. Liotta is back in fine form as the all-powerful crime boss, moved not by pleas and supplication, interested only in loyalty and the maintenance of his reign of terror. If you’ve been waiting for Liotta to get himself into a solid role, well, this is it. James Franco has a small role as a pervy pornographer, and David Schwimmer is delightful as a greased out ’70s drug-running crime flunky.
What perhaps is most constant in the mind, however, is trying to consider the lives of Kuklinski’s wife and two young daughters, living a lie for years, thinking their father was one man when in fact he was an entirely different kind of monstrous person. I didn’t care for Ryder’s portrayal of Deb, but I think that may be more of a problem with the character than Ryder’s work. She’s a little mincing, a little timid and wishy washy, but I still felt for her deeply that her life was devoted to a man so unworthy of her trust and love. While I was moved by her circumstances, I can’t absolve her completely. There must have been hints, around the edges, that she willfully chose to ignore, but either way, what a desperate, sad conclusion. What a waste of love and life to care for someone who so willfully deceived, and to what end!
The cinematography and production design of the film is well-done on what must have been a very shoe-string budget. There are certain corners cut, but the film moves from era to era with deliberation, Shannon’s facial hair and clothing always helping along the plot by giving us direct proof of when in time we are, helped out of course by a few title cards along the way alerting us to specific events.
Buyer beware, there’s lots of stabbings, shootings, bloody messes all over the place, gross out moments upon sickening nasty imagery. While The Iceman is certainly not Oscar-worthy, and at times feels only like a high-class version of a sensationalized Lifetime film, but there’s still plenty to like about this creepy little movie, mainly Michael Shannon’s endless reserve of calm, threatening low-level horror.