The Iceman is an average biopic that is elevated to something higher based solely on the strength of its star.
The Iceman looks at the life of infamous contract killer Richard Kuklinski, beginning with the first date with his future wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder). At first "Richie" (Michael Shannon) seems a gentle giant, offsetting his imposing physique and stone-faced demeanor with a shy attitude and quick wit; however, a bad exchange of words soon after in a bar quickly reveal that the Grim Reaper tattoo on Kuklinski's hand is no mere symbol - but rather a warning of his psychotic nature and penchant for ruthlessly efficient murder.
It's that monster hiding behind the man that mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) recognizes when he comes to rough-up Richie and his buddy Dino (Danny A. Abeckaser) for not having a porn film shipment ready. Roy puts a gun and a promise of money in Richie's hand, and in that moment, "The Iceman" is born. But when gangland affairs hit turbulent times, Roy decides to put the Iceman on pause; to keep earning pay, Richie goes into business with a another serial killer named Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) - a decision that puts him at odds with Roy, and in the crosshairs of the law.
Biopics face the challenge of adapting the complicated turns of a person's life into a linear cinematic narrative that both functions as a self-contained story, while also providing well-rounded insight about its subject. Many entries in the genre are only able to provide one of those two functions, making them either hollow experiences or overwrought films. While The Iceman is weighed down by some of those same issues, the strength of its central performer carries it over most of the hurdles.
The subject is tough to cover in this case, but indie director Ariel Vromen (Rx) smartly keeps the photography simple and intimate, and the cinematography vibrantly gritty, with enough space leftover to let his actors work out each scene. It's nothing revolutionary in filmmaking style, but the B-movie feel certainly fits the blue-collar crime world the characters inhabit. Some of the costumes and hairstyles of the changing eras ('60s to '70s to 80s) look a bit cheesy - but again, the actors carry past that with their solid performances.
Shannon is hitting the prime stride of his career, and while the Superman reboot Man of Steel will be a much more mainstream showcase of his talent, The Iceman is prime evidence of why Shannon already has one Oscar nomination under his belt. The entire film rests on the actor's shoulders, and he carries it in a way that is almost effortless. Shannon is a master at finding the balance in imbalance - effectively portraying characters who conceal volatile mania behind steely facades. Richard Kuklinski was certainly that, and through Shannon, the character fills every scene with tension and dread.
Even in the mundane scenes of the hitman at home with his family or out to dinner with friends, there is no telling when or why the Iceman will go hot and do something ruthless. Despite one brief flashback to his abuse-filled childhood, the movie doesn't attempt to sympathize with or glorify its subject - rather, it presents its interpretation of Kuklinski in straightforward unflinching manner, especially in later sequences of The Iceman and Mr. Freezy's vile murder spree. There is a clear throughline in both the narrative and character arc, showing the Iceman's inevitable collapse under the weight of his duplicitous life. It is that well-executed (no pun) downward spiral that gives this film a heartbeat.
Winona Ryder makes a welcome return as Kuklinski's wife, Deborah. The part isn't all that revolutionary (the standard sweet-but-naive beauty who tames the beast), but Ryder is able to give it spark, and is a good match for Shannon (she isn't looking too bad these days, either). Ray Liotta plays to slimy type as Roy Demeo - meanwhile Friends star David Schwimmer is starring in a movie all his own as Josh Rosenthal, one of Demeo's lieutenants whose foolhardy actions were the indirect cause of the Iceman's eventual downfall. Rosenthal's subplot is an awkward addition to the story, but Schwimmer all but disappears into the role, for what it's worth... Other actor cameos include James Franco, Sopranos star John Ventimiglia and an intense bit from Stephen Dorff rocking a thick handlebar moustache.
Chris Evans plays the disheveled-looking "Mr. Freezy" in such straightforward manner that it's creepy. Freezy is one of the more interesting characters in the film - a veritable artist of murder - and it's deeply disconcerting to watch him and Kuklinski sitting around discussing killing methods (or chopping up body parts) in the same mundane manner that non-psychos discuss the weather. Even Evans' divisive wit and charm manage to find the right moments to shine through. A nice departure from his Captain America role.
Like the 2011 memoir My Week With Marilyn, The Iceman is an average biopic that is elevated to something higher based solely on the strength of its star. While maybe not as interesting as watching Jim Thebaut's HBO interviews with the actual Iceman (moments that this film recreates as its bookends), it is a suitable set of cliff notes for those who haven't yet studied the horrific career of one of America's worst contract killers.
The Iceman is now playing in theaters. It is 106 minutes and is Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content.
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