Release Date: May 3, 2013
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Ariel Vromen
Writers: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen (Screenplay) Anthony Bruno (Book) Jim Thebaut (Documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With A Killer”)
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been fascinated with stories about the mafia. I would read books on everyone from Al Capone to Henry Hill and watch numerous television documentaries and film adaptations. I find it incredible how much power and influence they have which affects the lives of ordinary citizens. One person I’ve been fascinated with was Richard Kuklinski who was a notorious contract killer for the mob. He was nicknamed “The Iceman” for how he would keep the bodies of his victims in freezers and for his stone-cold demeanor when killing people never showing an ounce of emotion. His life story was made in several specials for HBO and in 2013, a film adaptation called The Iceman was released.
Directed by Ariel Vromen, Michael Shannon stars as Kuklinski starting in the 1960s. He starts out working as a porn film lab technician until he encounters Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), head of his own crew working for the Gambino crime family. DeMeo shuts down the lab and sees if Kuklinski would be more useful to them as a contract killer. After testing Kuklinski which he passes he becomes a ruthless hitman taking out anyone he is asked to take out. In addition, he is raising a young family with his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) who are kept in the dark about what he’s doing. After DeMeo has to lay low, Kuklinski works independently coming across another hitman named Robert Pronge, also known as Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) and they go in business together for another mobster named Leo Merks (Robert Davi). Eventually, Kuklinski becomes unstable and reckless which would lead to his ultimate downfall and the revelation from his family about his notorious career.
The Iceman is a blunt gangster film that has some spots of humanity, but overall is as cold as a Chicago winter. Vromen depicts Kuklinski as a man who is simply doing a job. He shows no mercy when he takes out the people he is hired to take out. He even toys with one of his victims (in a cameo appearance by James Franco) by telling him to pray to God and if he appears, he’ll spare his life. There are moments where Vromen shows some form of humanity of Kuklinski around his family, it feels like it doesn’t go far enough. We’ll get to more of that later.
The lead performance of Michael Shannon is as solid as a rock. He got the look and voice of Kuklinski down to a science. Throughout the film you see Shannon as a soulless monster which gradually starts to wear down on him with his family and some of the sticky situations, he finds himself in. Near the end he becomes paranoid and erratic which leaves him vulnerable to apprehension.
Shannon is supported by Winona Ryder as his wife who is completely oblivious to his deeds. There are moments where she tries to figure out if he has something to hide but loves him dearly that she believes everything he says. Ray Liotta plays a familiar role as a gangster, this time as Roy DeMeo. He plays DeMeo as a man to be feared and not to mess with. There is a great scene where Shannon is entering the back seat of Liotta’s car and Liotta is there pointing a gun to his head and lecturing him about how a man can only take so much and keep things hidden. The surprising performance to me was Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy. I’m so used to seeing Evans as clean-cut Captain America, but in this film he’s as crazy as Kuklinski but in a quieter way. He’s able to turn on the charm of an ice cream man to children and then when they’re gone, he becomes Kuklinski’s partner in taking out contracts.
There’s relatively little blood and gore in The Iceman as most of the brutal things Richard Kuklinski does in shown either off screen or in head shots. There are more gun killings than anything else. You’ll see moments of Kuklinski killing people execution style and some that just happen in a spontaneous moment due to his weakening trust around the mobsters that entrust him to do their dirty work for them.
While The Iceman is a slick film, it’s not without its flaws. First off, I think Ariel Vroman didn’t go deep enough with Kuklinski’s character and reasoning for doing what he did. He omits Kuklinski’s terrible childhood which many psychologists believe could have developed his lack of empathy. Also, some of the events in the timeline are not correct. I’ve read books on Richard Kuklinski and have seen the HBO special and certain events in this film, most notably near the end are shuffled around. In addition, the editing is constantly hectic even at the smallest of things which don’t give off the kind of emotions you are hoping to get in a movie.
The Iceman is indeed a depressing flick and not for everyone, but if you like these kind of character studies then this would be something for you to watch on a quiet evening. It’s straight laced in terms of plot and characters. The performances are what really drives the movie as Shannon interacts with the people, he comes across in his own way making sure to keep them at arm’s length from one another. If you like this movie I highly recommend checking out the Kuklinski tapes where The Iceman himself talks about his life, his family and his crimes. You’ll get a better understanding of his methods of madness.
- To aid her performance as the oblivious wife, Winona Ryder removed all the pages of the screenplay that didn’t involve her.
- Apart from a 15 second flashback, the film makes virtually no mention of the awful childhood that Richard Kuklinski endured. His parents were both deeply violent people, with his father actually accidentally beating his older brother to death. In real life, this played out into Kuklinski becoming a very violent person himself. The film completely glosses over the fact that he regularly beat his own wife.
- James Franco and Benicio Del Toro were originally cast in the lead roles. Franco was replaced by Chris Evans and Del Toro was replaced by Ray Liotta, although Franco was given the brief role of Marty Freeman instead.
- Michael Shannon was able to emulate the real Richard Kuklinski’s voice by listening to TV interviews and the HBO documentary, America Undercover: The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer (1992).
- The name on Mr.Freezy’s van is ‘Captain Freezy”. This is a possible nod to Chris Evan’s role as Captain America.
AUDIO CLIPS (Warning: Contains Explicit Language and Themes. Listener Discretion Is Advised)
They’re Lousy Conversationalists
Put The Money On The Table
Roy DeMeo Introduction
You Don’t Respect Yourself Enough To Use Your Own Name
Cold As Ice
You A Lumberjack?
God’s Got Nothing To Do With It
Pray To God
So Is It My Lucky Day Or Last?
You Can Finish Jerking Off
Like You Don’t Care Anymore
Poem To Annabelle
Maybe I Should Go In And Say Happy Birthday
Life Can Be Pretty Random