I’m reasonably confident in saying that Michael Shannon is one of our greatest living actors, particularly for his wonderful villains. Even when he takes the lead, his characters are deeply troubled and fascinating to watch. His turn as Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman is no different: a powerful performance, by turns creepy and shocking. The problem is that he’s a mighty oaken mast anchoring a backyard tent of a story.
Which is not to say that Kuklinski was anything to trifle with. A psychopath who found gainful employment as a hit man for a branch of the mafia, he claimed to have murdered more than 100 — maybe as many as 250 — men. And they were all men; he refused to kill women and children. Everyone’s gotta have a code, I guess.
We pick up with Kuklinski as he meets his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder). It’s the early ’70s and he’s working in a film lab dubbing and copying what he tells her are cartoons — actually pornography for a mob operation run by Gambino made man Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). Kuklinski impresses DeMeo with his reserve, and proves his loyalty by executing a bum DeMeo picks out at random on the street.
From there it seems the sky’s the limit; Kuklinski pulls in great money working as an enforcer and executioner for DeMeo. He tells his wife he’s working in the currency markets now, and they raise two daughters in the New Jersey suburbs. He really does seem to care about his wife and family, and nothing else.
But why? What made Kuklinski a doting, though mercurial, family man to them while hating just about everything else? Director Ariel Vromen’s script points us towards childhood abuse at his father’s hands — abuse which drove his brother to similar violent criminality — but it does so almost like checking off a box. That Kuklinski was beaten is a mere fact, with no meaning that can be connected to his adult behavior. We see no arc of escalation; no sign of the years Kuklinski spent hunting and killing Manhattan’s West Side homeless population for sport. “Oh, child abuse,” we’re meant to say. “That explains everything.”
And then the story plays out by checking off more boxes. Here we see fellow hitman Robert “Mister Softee” Prongay (Chris Evans) introduce Kuklinski to cyanide. Here we see his relationship with DeMeo go south. Here we see the strain on his marriage. There’s no story beyond a bunch of things that happened.
Worse, the little arc there is about Kuklinski’s family life is made up. He was always violent towards his real wife and domineering towards her and his children, at least in private. So if Vromen is willing to stretch the truth to make a little narrative come together, why not bend it further and craft an actual coherent story for the whole movie?
Checking off events is really the best that anyone could do, since there’s only enough of a story to Richard Kuklinski for a true-crime documentary, heavy on the retrospective interviews. And, in fact, HBO has already made that documentary. Twice. The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer was made after a 1991 jailhouse interview, and The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman after one in 2001.
This is where the truly chilling aspects to Kuklinski’s story become apparent: in watching the man speak in his own calm, even words about carrying out the wholesale slaughter of other human beings with about as much affect as when talking about a lawn care regimen. The Iceman simply cannot outdo these documentaries with a thin, disconnected, fictionalized reenactment, even with Michael Shannon’s help.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.