A film review by Craig J. Koban July 24, 2013 

RANK: #14


2013, R, 105 mins.


Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski  /   Winona Ryder as Deborah  /  Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy  /  Ray Liotta as Roy DeMeo / David Schwimmer as Josh Rosenthal  /  Robert Davi as Leonard Marks


Directed by Ariel Vromen  /  Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen, based on the book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by Anthony Bruno

Michael Shannon has a cold and ruthlessly detached stare that could melt a steel wall from across the room.  In short, his mug is pitch perfect to play a heartless and emotionally vacant murderer, and he does so to icy and remarkably unnerving virtuosity in THE ICEMAN, based on a true tale of Richard Leonard Kuklinski – “The Iceman” – who claimed to have killed over 100 men – possibly even over 200 – between 1948 and 1986 for the mob.  He did so while living a relatively cozy family life with his wife and children, whom all were none the wiser as to his violent extracurricular activities. 

Israeli-born director Ariel Vromen bases the film on Anthony’s Bruno’s book THE ICEMAN: THE TRUE STORY OF A COLD-BLOODED KILLER.  What’s truly kind of spellbinding about the film – which, to be fair, amalgamates both fact and some fiction – is what a staunchly vivid and unsympathetic portrait of a stoic and merciless sociopath it is.  “The killing for me was secondary,” Kuklinski once publicly said, “I got no rise as such out of it.”  The film’s intoxicating epicenter is how such a monster of a man – displaying virtually no compassion for his victims or regret for his hellish actions – also managed to, for decades, live a secret and compartmentalized life as a devoted father and husband.  To his wife and kids, he was a caring and nurturing patriarch, but to his enemies outside of that, Kuklinski was a ferociously inhuman killing machine that got the job done with a relentless precision. 

Compellingly, THE ICEMAN has an epic narrative in terms of how much time it covers, but it nevertheless feels tightly insular and intimate.  The film begins in the 1960’s and then traverses through the 70’s and 80’s, but it essentially introduces Kuklinski (Shannon) as young man trying to court his soon-to-be wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder, quite uniformly decent here) in the mid-1960’s, and to watch the scene you’d never think that Kuklinski would be the tortuously vile mob enforcer that he would ultimately become.  “You’re a prettier version of Natalie Wood,” he informs the blushing Deborah, but he still seems like an inwardly drawn soul.  From here the film flashforwards to the 70’s, after he and Deborah have been married, during which time he claims to his new wife and friends that he dubs animated films for Disney.  In actuality, he’s a porn distributor for the mob.  



Well, that job is of a trivial concern compared to what Kuklinski would end up doing for the Gambino crime family and its overseer, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, in his umpteenth mob role, but he does it with such relish and so well).  What began as Kuklinski “collecting debts” and “sending messages” for the family would then segue into increasing acts of brutal murder.  He does have a credo, though, as to just what kind of people he slaughters (no women or kids), but Kuklinski remains, regardless of target, a brutal and pitiless one-man army.  There’s an absolutely fascinating and chilling-to-the-bone scene that has Kuklinski giving one of his victims – played in a very brief, but memorable turn, by James Franco - a chance to seek help, per se, before he’s executed.  “Pray to God," Kuklinski somberly informs him. "Tell him to come down and stop me.” 

The further that Kuklinski goes down the volatile hitman rabbit hole, the more it forces him to be creative and secretive from his wife and kids (she never really asks him too many questions that would tip off his alter ego, though).  Unfortunately, a series of ill-fated missions and some missteps forces some deeply-rooted friction between him and DeMeo, which results in the mob boss cutting him loose.  Alas, Kuklinski needs to support his family, not to mention maintain his cover as a hard-working everyman.  This results in him, rather begrudgingly, to join forces with another hitman (played in a wonderfully against-type role by the unrecognizable Chris Evans) to take on more contracts.  Things, regrettably, go really south when Kuklinski starts to break down from the stresses of his dual life, not to mention that DeMeo wants to whack him and his while family. 

Seriously, is there a finer actor working in contemporary cinema that can generate such a commanding and mesmerizing level of simmering intensity as Shannon?  He may not be a dead ringer for the real 6’5”, 300-pound Kuklinski, but Shannon still manages to make the Polish-American killer an unendingly imposing figure of malice.  Shannon literally looks like death personified: He has a black, hollow-eyed, and impenetrably hostile gaze that speaks volumes when his mouth doesn’t, and so very few actors can relay boiling hostility and introverted rage primarily through stillness as Shannon musters here.  No matter how heartless, cruel, and wholeheartedly dislikeable Kuklinski is at the core of this film, you are still drawn to him as a richly defined and unsettling character because of the way Shannon – as he has demonstrated with all of his previous performances – has an ability to hijack our attentions away from everything else that is happening in a scene that he occupies.  That’s the sign of a truly empowered and magnetic screen presence, and Shannon owns every frame of this film. 

It would be easy to forget the other truly strong performances in the film as well that are under Shannon’s unmistakably large shadow.  Winona Ryder in particular gives career-high work playing Kuklinski’s blissfully unaware, but nurturing and loving spouse; she also gives a more subtle and graceful performance as her character that, as written, is perhaps yet another perfunctory loyal-to-the-end mob wife role.  Liotta, as stated, can play mob men in his sleep, but here he’s kind of more refreshingly anxious, uncertain, and fearful than he is an instantly hostile and tough gangster.  Stephen Dorff makes a small appearance in a key scene as Kuklinski’s imprisoned baby brother that’s heartbreaking and deviously foreshadows things to come.  Lastly, there is Chris Evans’ wickedly grungy and slimy turn as a Dutch-Irish murderer that uses a Mr. Freezy ice-cream truck as cover to hide his decapitated and mutilated bodies of his victims in its freezers.  

THE ICEMAN looks sensational as well, in its own sleek, low-key and unobtrusive manner.  Bobby Bukowski’s dark, foreboding, and dreary cinematography matches the heart of the main character and his decades-long quest to maintain two separate lives that ultimately got the better of him.  In March of 1988 Kuklinski was tried and convicted for the murders of five (of the possible hundred) people that he killed and was sentenced to consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole until he was 110.  He never saw his wife and family again afterwards and died at the age of 70 in 2006 while still behind bars.  How sad.  How very, very sad.  Yet, THE ICEMAN is a brilliant film not for how it asks us to identify with this madman, but rather for how it pitilessly relays and evokes the tragic story of Kuklinski as a hard-hitting and grim expose of a truly disturbed and malicious individual.  And Shannon’s Oscar-nomination level turn here all but solidifies him as one of the most enthrallingly hypnotic actors of his generation.  When he’s on-screen it’s impossible to look away, even when he frightens you enough to do so.

  H O M E