There are many films that have a single saving grace, and the 2012 film, The Iceman, is one of them. If one were to remove the excellent acting performance of Michael Shannon, in the 105 minute long film’s lead and titular character of Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, this film would be little different than the early 00s exploitation crime flicks that populated Blockbuster DVD markdown bins in the last decade. It’s a film that fails mainly because of a bad screenplay, but a screenplay that fails in an odd way- many of its individual scenes are well acted and wrought, but none of the scenes works well in a narrative flow, and far too many of said scenes are utterly superfluous to the film, and digress to areas wholly unrelated to the narrative. It also gives no insight into Kuklinski’s inner life and character. Additionally, it puts forth many old Hollywood gangster stereotypes, as well as seriously fudging historical accuracy. That, in and of itself, would not be bad, if it made the film better, but, it makes it worse, and I shall detail some of the reasons why.
The main portion of the film is set between 1964 and 1986- from Kuklinski’s courtship of his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) until his arrest as a contract killer, in the wake of a botched hit and body dump that led to his arrest as ‘The Iceman,’ a name given due to his propensity for freezing some victims to throw off prosecutors about the actual time and date of death. Interestingly, the very reason Kuklinski was arrested- the botched hit, is never addressed in the film. Instead of getting an interior look into why Kuklinski did what he did, and little moments of insight, set in a concentrated period of a few months, like in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, we get pointless digressions into the dealings of Roy DeMeo, and his cohorts, such as the killing of Colombian drug dealers, and Mafia orders to kill Josh Rosenthal (really, Chris Rosenberg, played by David Schwimmer), the Jewish protégé of DeMeo, who was part of the Gemini killing crew DeMeo ran for the Gambino Crime Family. Now, this whole digression could be a legitimate film in its own right, but it has NOTHING at all to do with Kuklinski, save that he knew these people.
To give a sense of many of the film’s flaws, as well as those exhibited by critics of the film, let me quote the Wikipedia plot summary of the film:
In the 1960s Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) marries Deborah (Winona Ryder) and the couple have two daughters. However, Kuklinski has secrets from his family. He works dubbing pornographic films which he then supplies to a mob operated syndicate, but he tells his family that he dubs Disney cartoons. Kuklinski is also deeply troubled. As an outcome of brutal beatings he received as a boy from his immigrant Polish father, Kulinski displays violent extreme emotional and physical rages. In one instance a man insulted his girlfriend. Kulinski follows the man to his car and murders him by quickly slashing his throat.
[The film plays up this abuse claim by Kuklinski and even wastes a flashback on it- but that’s it. It never really probes the ramifications, and the abuse is just tossed as a bone for some sense of pity for this brutal character.]
Another secret Kuklinski keeps is his younger brother Joseph (Stephen Dorff) is serving a life sentence for raping and murdering a minor female child.
[In real life, Joe Kuklinski’s killing was infamous, and the real Richard Kuklinski could NOT hide his connection to his brother. In the film, the scene between the two is just a made up throwaway scene to lead to the aforementioned flashback of child abuse. Nothing further comes of the scene, nor the two brothers’ relationship.]
Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), a powerful mob boss, shuts down the pornographic film business in which Kuklinski was involved and brings him on board to work as a contract killer after Kuklinski passes an impromptu audition for the job.
[DeMeo was NOT a Mob Boss, but a capo- i.e.- he ran a crew. In Mafia terms, vis-à-vis military terms, he was a sergeant.]
During the killing of Marty Freeman (James Franco) for using DeMeo's name too freely in his business dealings, Kuklinski meets Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), another hitman for the mob. After DeMeo puts Kuklinski on suspension for allowing a teenage girl to live after witnessing a hit (Kuklinski reveals that he never kills women or children), he teams up with Pronge, who is a freelancer, and splits the contract payments with him in return for helping him on contract assassinations.
[While the killing of Franco scene is one of the film’s best, it is based on a famed claim Kuklinski made re: another killing. Worst of all it the reiteration of the phony claim that Kuklinski never killed women and children. It’s as phony as the claim that the Mafia only kills their own. Many killers claim similar self-prohibitions, to try and claim a sort of ethic, but the reality is that if Kuklinski HAD done what the film shows, and DeMeo knew of it, Kuklinski would have been killed asap. The whole scene between Kuklinski and Pronge- known as Mr. Freezy (in real life, Mr. Softee), with a subsequent chase of the girl by Pronge’s ice cream truck, is Hollywood nonsense- and one of two wholly unneeded chase sequences in the film.]
DeMeo eventually finds out about all of this unauthorized employment and threatens Kuklinski at the same time that he severs all ties with him. After a while, Kuklinski's daughter is seriously injured by a hit-and-run car accident. Kuklinski suspects Pronge and shoots him in a public park.
[DeMeo, in real life and the film, did NOT sever ties with Kuklinski, and the running over of his daughter was done on orders from Demeo.]
Following an undercover sting operation Kuklinski is arrested in 1986. Neither his wife nor his daughters had ever suspected him of being a cold-blooded killer. Kuklinski admitted to having committed over 100 vicious murders, both for personal reasons and for profit, in his 22-year career. After being sentenced to two life terms in prison he never saw his wife and two daughters again. He died in prison under suspicious circumstances in 2006 just before he was to testify against a Gambino crime family underboss.
[Kuklinski was arrested by the sting, but the sting was brought because Kuklinski botched a few of his body dumps, and coroners found ice crystals in some corpses, which helped lead them to suspect Pronge, and then Kuklinski.]
The screenplay was written by director Ariel Vroman and Morgan Land, based upon the book, The Iceman: The True Story Of A Cold-Blooded Killer, by Anthony Bruno, and tries too hard to tell too much over too long a time frame- a failing most biopics succumb to. Then it also succumbs to shock dependence to keep the viewers’ interest- but after a montage of 2-3 minutes of death, the viewer is long weaned from caring for Kuklinski and the film. The film’s scoring, by Haim Mazar, is solid, with a sprinkling of diegetic period music, and not too much emotional guidance with the non-diegetic music, save for a few scenes. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography (seen fullscreen on Netflix streaming) and Danny Rafic’s ranges from excellent, in moments, to often overdone, unnecessary, and intrusive.
The film’s other technical accomplishments are quite good, such as the use of period cars, and filming mostly at night, and in dark areas, to hide the signs of 21st Century modernity (this was a low budget film), although the film’s overall sepia tinge becomes a bit of an artifice midway through- there is a sense that this is a dream, and given that the film opens and closes with Kuklinski being asked a question in a filmed interview, we know it’s all flashback, yet, other than the sepia, the film never takes advantage of this narrative tack. If the film wanted to have a deeper psychological impact, instead of the nonstop slaughter shown, director Vroman could have, and should have, been more inventive- have Kuklinski pause in his memory, and have other scenes flash in, and not just rote, predictable, and melodramatic scenes of claimed beatings by his father- in which Joe Kuklinski claims Rich took beatings meant for him.
This leads into the notion that Richard Kuklinski was merely a typical serial killer who lucked out into getting employment that paid for his murderous rages. But, Vroman never follows up on these promising areas. The Iceman ultimately descends into a film of lost opportunities, and 95% of this lays on the screenplay’s shoulders, for the script always takes the safe and easy way out, dramatically and psychologically.
It also wastes characters and actor performances in poorly conceived, written, and executed scenes that never dig into character, opting, instead, for cheap action propulsion. As example, Kuklinski’s wife, played by Winona Ryder, has some good scenes, but is never allowed to shine fully. The best example comes in a scene wherein Richard is in a pissy mood, she asks him what’s wrong, and he goes insanely violent, and trashes the house, and she comforts him, wholly forgetting what prompted the rage-the fact that he was ‘laid off’ by DeMeo, after the hit on the Colombian dealers- a connection never fully explained, logically, as Kuklinski was never associated with DeMeo’s hits, at this point, and hitmen simply don’t work daily; hence the ‘layoff’ is a poor dramatic tool written to try and get a scene of emotion between husband and wife. This poor and easily seen manipulation falls flat, as does another similarly concocted scene (not realistic nor historically true) where Kuklinski causes a car accident, threatens the victim, who curses him and his wife, to which Kuklinski engages in a full on high speed Hollywood pursuit (replete with all the visual clichés of such), only to fail. Naturally, such a chase would have easily exposed Kuklinski to arrest, and his world would have been exposed right there. Very bad screenwriting, and one which shows the baleful influence of Hollywood, and its mentality, even on indy films.
Chris Evans’ rival hitman, Pronge, has potential, but a few scenes of the men comparing notes and perhaps philosophically pondering their business would have been good. Liotta’s DeMeo is solid, but his whole life, digressions, and office scenes, with David Schwimmer’s Rosenthal, really have nothing to do with Kuklinski, and everything with trying to set the film deep inside the Mafia (ala Goodfellas), when Kuklinski, as a Polack, was never deeply involved in anything but murder. In fact, DeMeo and his Murder Machine, for the Gambino Family (of which Kuklinski was a minor player), would have made for a much better film, in general. As example, right after Schwimmer’s character is killed, a Gambino figure threatens one of DeMeo’s henchman who attempted to stop him from making sure Rosenthal is dead. This is a good dramatic moment- in that unmade DeMeo based film, for, in this film, we’ve never gotten any connection to the threatened henchman, nor do we care about the Gambino man. That scene also is the culmination of the Cali cartel drug deal scene, but we know so little of it (and the film assumes we know of it) that we are not invested- and, again, none of this has a thing to do with Kuklinski.
But, a similar narrative solecism that does involve Kuklinski occurs earlier, when, at a restaurant, someone named Dino comes up to Kuklinski and claims to be his best friend and all, and yet we’ve not seen him throughout the film, and we are expected to feel some sort of connection between the two. In short, the screenplay and film rely to heavily on the clichés and conventions of gangster films to be unique, in its own right. And, any film whose drama is founded upon the banal, no matter how well wrought (and this film has additional problems) is bound to fail.
In summation, Shannon gives a great, but limited, performance, but it never reaches the levels of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. There’s no gun and mirror scene, there’s no just hearing his voice on a payphone as the camera shies away. In a sense, the screenplay both births and castrates Shannon’s performance. It is what it is, but it is ultimately inert. The same can be said for The Iceman, as a film. Perhaps this is apt, but it is not satisfying on any level, and the more that one thinks and analyzes the film, in toto and in parts, the more it falls apart. I’ll stop now.