‘The Iceman’ movie review


Still of Michael Shannon in The Iceman. (Anne Marie Fox)
May 16, 2013

It’s somewhat difficult to judge Michael Shannon’s performance in “The Iceman,” which is based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a serial killer and mob assassin. Kuklinski, who died in prison in 2006, is notorious for having murdered, by his own imperfect recollection, at least one or two hundred people, without apparent compunction. That — or possibly the fact that he sometimes froze his victims’ bodies before dumping them — was the reason for his chilling nickname.

The cold-bloodedness, at least, Shannon gets exactly right.

Ariel Vromen’s film (written by the director and Morgan Land) shows Kuklinski committing his first on-camera murder after he’s been disrespected by a guy in a bar. Most people would shrug it off; a hothead might pop the guy in the mouth. Kuklinski follows the jerk outside, where he casually slits the man’s throat. This may or may not have been Kuklinski’s first killing. A later scene shows him visiting his incarcerated little brother (Stephen Dorff), who alludes to at least one earlier childhood murder.

It’s harrowing stuff, as the corpses pile up in “The Iceman.” Eventually, numbness sets in as we watch Kuklinski’s body count rise, all the while as he maintains a semblance of suburban normalcy, marrying a mousey wife (Winona Ryder) and raising a couple of clueless daughters.

The plot is standard criminal biopic stuff, charting Kuklinski’s rise through the organization of gangster Roy Demeo and his collaboration with a second hit man, known as Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans). It’s Mr. Freezy who teaches Kuklinski the technique of putting victims on ice, which makes it harder for police to pinpoint the time of death, because it halts the body’s decomposition. In real life, the police eventually figured out the trick, when they discovered ice crystals in a victim’s bloodstream.

But how Kuklinski — a consummate professional who used a variety of techniques, including cyanide — managed to elude the authorities for so long is not the most fascinating thing about his story. It’s how he managed to fool his family. Shannon shows the character’s Jekyll-and-Hyde sides nicely, but the film offers few insights into how he kept them separate. What kind of man could do what he did without some of it leaking into his personal life? “The Iceman” leaves that question hanging.

One scene in which Kuklinski freaks out after a minor traffic encounter — chasing down and nearly running over the other driver, with Kuklinski’s wife and kids in the car — suggests that he couldn’t entirely compartmentalize. But for the most part, Shannon delivers a blank, affectless performance. It’s probably appropriate to the character, but it’s like trying to read fear or rage in someone’s eyes, only through sunglasses.

Shannon’s Iceman is a bit too icy for the movie’s own good, even if the supporting cast, which includes James Franco as a particularly pathetic victim, is fine.

There’s a moment in the movie when — for a brief instant — this isn’t true. Unfortunately, it comes late in the game. Vromen frames “The Iceman” as a flashback, bookended by a prison interview with Shannon as Kuklinski.

It’s not until the end of the film that we see a glimmer of Kuklinski’s humanity, as he reflects on the impact of his actions on his wife and daughters, and on the toll a lifetime of dissembling has taken on his own soul.

It’s a pretty powerful scene, and it’s based on an actual prison interview with Kuklinski that appears in an earlier documentary. I watched Shannon, and was impressed with his acting ability.

Then I watched the documentary, and was blown away by the egregiousness of Kuklinski’s.

R. At area theaters. Contains bloody violence, obscenity and some sexuality. 105 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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