Pushing the cold killer and family guy to breaking point, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman features a stellar performance from Michael Shannon and a cluster of stars.
In Cold Blood by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the real-life crimes of Richard Kuklinski, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman tells the story of the mafia contract killer and compromised family man who, with a police-baffling mixture of guns, poison, knives, explosives and a miscellany of blunt instruments, killed over 100 men in and around New York. Sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in 1988, Kuklinski died in prison under suspicious circumstances in 2006, the day before he was due to give evidence against the Gambino mafia family. But based on Anthony Bruno’s novel The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, Vromen’s flashback narrative is triggered by a prison interview and the knotty question over whether the jailed mobster has any lingering regrets. And starring a curious mix of A-list cameos and a seething central performance from actors’ actor Michael Shannon, The Iceman is an ice-cold gangster movie reaching for the stars.
It’s New Jersey, 1964 and Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is meeting Deborah (Winona Ryder) for a first date. They’re both Catholic and coy, and it’s not long before wedding bells are ringing. Lying about his day job in a clandestine pornography production unit run by the mafia, Kuklinski stands up to the collectors who come knocking, and ends up as a gun for hire for Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). He’s no stranger to murder, slitting the throat of a pool shark who badmouths Debbie and proving his mettle by shooting a down-and-out, unemotional and able to follow orders. Kuklinksi soon becomes Demeo’s most prolific hitman, collecting debts, sending messages – stabbing and garrotting. And armed with a currency exchanging cover story, Kuklinski is on the up, and both the houses and the sideburns get bigger. But when he’s decommissioned by the mob and the money starts to dry up, he teams up with Mister Softee (Chris Evans) in a well-polished side racket of industrial killing and freezing. And it’s not long before loyalties collide and the net begins to tighten.
For the Iceman, mob killings are a lucrative entrance ticket into the American dream, each slashing and knifing paying handsomely for his family’s smart house in the suburbs, and facilitated by a unique gift for killing without compunction. His identity is defined through providing for his family, but he can’t protect them from his crimes and gradually they too are dragged into his moral vortex – the Iceman’s links to the pornography underworld rumbled over dinner with friends. There’s a constantly simmering, unslakable rage which rises up when his family are affronted – giving chase to a random roadrager, putting their lives at risk and terrifying them out of their wits. But it’s at his daughter Annabel’s sweet 16th birthday that his two worlds finally collide, Demeo in a car outside his home threatening his family and sparking an apocalyptic holocaust in which Kuklinski can only survive by bringing everyone else down.
For Ariel Vromen, whose screenplay focuses on the family man as much as gangster killings, Kuklinski’s moniker “The Iceman” seems to reflect his almost schizophrenic mental discipline and internalised rage as much as his cold-blooded killings and eventual modus operandi of freezing bodies to cover up the time of death. The contract murders in which he’s ably assisted by Robert Prongay AKA “Mister Softee”, where victims are sprayed with cyanide and their bodies put on ice in a forgotten warehouse in the meatpacking district are skimped over, perhaps overwhelmed by their sheer number. But despite a nod to a backstory of an abusive father and a brother incarcerated in Hudson County Jail for raping a 12-year-old girl, The Iceman doesn’t seek to unpick the psychology behind the killer’s glacial exterior, getting its blood and guts instead from gangster killings and family histrionics.
There’s great style to Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, like the hypnotic journey through the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River or the killing of Ray Demeo in a car crash of slow-mo pathos. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography often takes place behind trees, stairwells and doors, simulating the fear that someone might be watching. But by far and away the best thing about The Iceman is Michael Shannon’s performance – evolving flawlessly from Fifties huckster to Seventies mob mogul, all headbanging rage and nervous suspicion. It’s a shame then that, instead of exploring the psychology of Shannon’s steely, ice-cold serial killer, Vromen gives way to familiar tropes of conflicted gangster loyalties and a flashy glut of Hollywood A-listers – Ray Liotta adding a bit of Goodfellas prestige, Winona Ryder bringing some ’90s glamour, Stephen Dorff some indie chic and the ubiquitous James Franco in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Their star turns though are given sharp shrift, only Chris Evans delivering a meaty, muscular performance beyond the marquee name. As a result, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman ends up as a kind of This Is Your Life for Richard Kuklinski, with no real focus beyond the biopic. But making up for it with the genre thrills and spills of a moody gangster noir.
The Iceman is released on 7th June 2013 in the UK