[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The Iceman opens today in limited release.]
The Iceman is a hitman movie. It’s about a hitman and nothing else. Director and co-writer Ariel Vromen takes no chances on his film based on the life of mob enforcer Richard Kuklinski. The movie paints a two-dimensional character, and then wants credit for not making him one-dimensional. There’s more effort put into developing the characters’ era-appropriate facial hair than developing the story into anything more than a description of Kuklinski’s actions. Only Michael Shannon‘s overpowering screen presence stops The Iceman from being the driest crime drama in recent memory.
Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) was always a violent murderer. Mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) just gave Kuklinski a way to use his inherent tendencies to make some money. The story then plays like a recreation of real events from 1964 to 1982 rather than something resembling a dramatic arc. Kuklinski is fundamentally the same at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end of the movie. He was a killer with a code and a very short temper. Only his external circumstances changed, and not to the extent where he was forced to seriously reexamine his life.
But The Iceman wants us to believe Kuklinski is a compelling figure because even though he may have killed over 100 people during his career as a hitman, he also loved his family. This is not a mind-blowing concept. We’ve all seen gangster movies, and the notion of a sociopath who loves his family isn’t some startling revelation. The only difference between Kuklinski and these fictional felons is a body count. And that number should be meaningless. Is a hitman who kills twenty people a better person than a hitman who kills twenty-one people? Making Kuklinski a steadfast family man almost makes the character less interesting because we know that all of his actions will revolve around the preservation of his family.
Anything that feels special about the character comes from Shannon. What’s most impressive about Shannon’s performance is we’ve seen him play this kind of character before. Michael Shannon just knows how to play horrifying people. I’ve never met Michael Shannon, and he may be the nicest guy in the world, but you take one look at his face and you instantly believe that he’s capable of murder. It’s a testament to the actor’s sheer charisma that he can take a familiar character, and make him feel fresh. On the page, there’s nothing original about Kuklinski, but in Shannon’s hands, the hitman feels like a giant of mafia history.
And yet there’s no denying how safe The Iceman feels. Vromen found a shocking real-life criminal, but didn’t uncover anything compelling about Kuklinski. We never learn why Kuklinski is worthy of a movie as opposed to any other real-life hitman. Vromen doesn’t even play up Kuklinski’s prolific body count, nor does the director seem particularly impressed with how Kuklinski earned his nickname “The Iceman” (he froze the bodies of his victims so the cops wouldn’t be able to tell the time of death). With no insight into Kuklinski, his crimes, or the place of the hitman in modern American crime fiction, Vromen has simply made a movie that allows Michael Shannon to terrify the audience. But with an actor like Shannon, that’s almost good enough.