Ostensibly based on the true story of Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, The Iceman faces a couple of major obstacles right out of the gate:
1. Kuklinski’s veracity has been questioned; and
2. The movie feels like it’s missing its first act.
To tackle the second problem first, Richard (Michael Shannon) is introduced with a huge bushy beard, mumbling something that’s almost incoherent, and is then shown on a shy, sweet-talking date with Deborah (Winona Ryder) in the early 1960s. That’s contrasted with a scene where Richard slits the throat of someone who has angered him over an inconsequential matter. The sequence immediately sets up the diametrically-opposed extremes of Richard’s personality: loving and sensitive vs. savage and murderous.
Therein lies the kernel of a classic conflict that could have been the wellspring of a great movie.
Instead, scenarist Morgan Land and director Ariel Vromen, who previously colloborated on 2005’s Rx, focus on the more superficial elements of Kuklinski’s story. That’s what they did with Rx, as well: conjure up splashy, flashy moments of stylish, tough-guy behavior, and string them together with a narrative through line that ensures the multitude of episodes will not add up to any more than the sum of their parts.
Like fireworks, those dramatic components can be thoroughly engaging, for as long as they (briefly) last. Michael Shannon is a powerful performer, he’s scary and threatening whenever Richard’s fury grows hot, dead-eyed and menacing when he’s murdering or maiming, and kind and warm, if a bit distant, whenever he’s interacting with his family. (He marries Deborah and they have two daughters together, who are mostly shown in their teens when the action shifts to the mid-1970s.) But mostly he’s a very convincing serial killer.
That latter point ties back in to the first obstacle mentioned at the outset. Granted, it’s entirely possible that I would have accepted Kuklinski’s account at face value, were it not for the coincidence that I recently read Murder Machine, a scrupulously-researched and meticulously-detailed book by journalists Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci about the Roy DeMeo gang. The Brooklyn criminals were known to be ruthless and capricious, and suspected of killing more than 100 people (conservatively) and possibly hundreds; most of the bodies were disposed of in some way, making a final body count impossible.
Mean Machine and The Iceman intersect when, in the film, Richard meets Roy (Ray Liotta), who is impressed by Richard and recruits him as a killer. Now, nowhere in Mean Machine is Kuklinski mentioned, which could have been an omission by the authors. Or, it could mean that Kuklinski, in the book based on his life story, was not telling the truth. A number of other incidents that are dramatized in the movie do not agree with what is reported in Mean Machine, either. (A little research revealed more questions raised about Kuklinski’s confessions, which gained notoriety from interviews he gave that were broadcast on television.)
Of course, fictional films inspired by real-life events are not obligated to hew closely to established evidence. What matters in a movie is whether it has the ring of truth: Does this feel like it could have happened?
By that standard, The Iceman fails. It feels like a self-serving version of events staged to make Richard Kuklinski look like the most fearsome Mafia contract killer in history. And it’s a wasted opportunity, because he was, from all evidence, a monstrous murderer, probably a serial killer in truth, which would have made a much more compelling, repulsive picture.
But he’s rendered here as a mythological creature, born fully-formed as a violent psychotic, whose break from reality happens off-screen, as does any hope of a piercing, penetrating examination of an ice-cold killer.
As noted, though, Shannon is mesmerizing, and Ryder and Liotta both turn in very good performances that are complemented by a strong supporting cast that includes Chris Evans, Robert Davi. and David Schwimmer, as well as cameos by James Franco and Stephen Dorff.
The Iceman opens in limited release in Metroplex theaters on Friday, May 17.