Richard Kuklinski is probably one of the most well-known contract killers in all of American history. Admitting to being one of the members who killed Jimmy Hoffa, Kuklinski has a notorious reputation for being brutal and inventive with his victims. Having supposedly killed his first victim at the age of 14, the man known as “The Iceman” (because he would freeze his victims before disposing of their bodies), is now a name to remember in the world of movies as well.
Richard Kuklinski is a contract killer, but that’s not the only job he has. He’s also a family man with a wife and two kids (three in real life, but who’s counting?). Starting off the movie with a brief look into the future, the film backtracks to 1964, where Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is seen courting his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) at a small diner. By the looks of him you’d never know that he kills people out of anger or for fun as he smiles and makes Deborah laugh. He tells her he works in the cartoon dubbing industry (“Is that what they’re calling porn these days?”) and Deborah is young, a little naïve, and is flattered by the attention. Before you know it they’re married and soon after, Kuklinski is recruited to begin killing for Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta).
Life seems good for a long time with Kuklinski making good money and buying his family everything, telling people he works in currency exchange. After years of service and killing who knows how many people, Kuklinski begins working with a man known as Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans). Eventually, Kuklinski finds himself cornered. Paranoid, he becomes sloppy and this leads to his eventual arrest and imprisonment in 1986.
Director Ariel Vromen paints Kuklinski as a man who’s barely in control of his inner rage, scarred by his abusive childhood at the hands of his father, and a caring and devoted family man all rolled into one package. But somehow, that final delivery is uneven and tedious to say the least. Uneven because a lot of time is spent on Kuklinski the murderer and not enough time is given to truly dissect the psychological ramifications his early life has on his future crime sprees.
It’s also tedious because of the focus on the killings without much movement of the plot. It feels like a lot of the film could have been executed by focusing on other aspects of Kuklinski’s life. After a while, watching all the killings becomes boring and tiresome. There’s only a brief snapshot of what Kuklinski’s life was like as a child and a quick appearance by his brother that doesn’t do much except confirm that he was severely beaten and abused. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Kuklinski’s older brother was beaten to death by his parents who covered it up as an accident. Certain details into his background such as this would have given more insight into the mind of Kuklinski and created a better-rounded movie.
This is not to say that there aren’t things to like about the film because there’s plenty to like. The back and forth between fierce killer and almost content moments from his family life might give you whiplash but they help distinguish Kuklinski’s double life. Another thing to like about “The Iceman” is Michael Shannon. Shannon gives a standout performance as Kuklinski, his eyes giving away what his face never really does: the amount of shaking rage behind a stoic and controlled demeanor. Shannon’s performance in the final moments of the film speaks volumes and his ability to convey Kuklinski’s emotions towards his family is one of the best scenes in the entire film.
Chris Evans is also a standout in his role as Kuklinski’s partner, Mr. Freezy. He seems to be the only one in the entire film with a sense of humor, sadistic as it might be. One of the best scenes and lighter moments (and I don’t mean light as in comedy) comes when Evans and Shannon make their way onto a dance floor in order to conduct a murder. It’s swift and awkward, both their characters blending in and seeming out of place at the same time.
Winona Ryder is decent as Deborah Kuklinski, her naivety and terror regarding some of the events are portrayed well enough that they aren’t particularly grating but could have come off a little less forced.
Director Ariel Vromen brings us the story of “The Iceman” in a drawn out and violent recount of his criminal career and life. It runs a little on the long side given the focus and execution of the material. The film is a little uneven, but the performances are generally top notch and a lot of times what keeps you in your seat. The film as a whole is slightly disappointing given the fact that it’s based on a true story and could have been so much more. Besides the appalling and awful crimes Kuklinski committed, certain details in his life could have been portrayed a bit differently in order to shed more light on the ever baffling double life of a renowned killer.