Whipping out a pistol at Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) and aiming it to his skull, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) is intent on getting the man to flinch. But with no such luck, he offers the emotional blank slate of a man a job. “You just don’t give a fuck” utters DeMeo as he offers his professional critique of Kuklinski’s psyche. The film’s rigidness loosens up briefly before the cycle repeats itself. This is how a scene and many other subsequent scenes play out in Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, a film that attempts to derive tension from idle glances and hyper violence. Vromen essentially takes the true-life murders of Richard Kuklinski and generates a greatest hits compilation without so much as adding context or gravitas to the brutality on display.
Richard Kuklinski earned the moniker the Iceman for freezing the corpses of his victims, though Vromen only sparingly acknowledges this detail. Rather, his preoccupation is to juxtapose Kuklinski’s mass killings with a look into his familial identity. Opening with the first date with his soon-to-be wife Deborah (Winona Ryder), there’s a calculated tenderness to the scene that promises more than it lets on. Unfortunately, the film begins to operate as a disjointed portrait of a committed family man who embarks upon these murders as a means to provide for his wife and children. Designed to register some measure of internal drama, Vromen canvasses Kuklinski as a blank slate yet Shannon’s vivid portrayal is nothing short of demonic. Yet Vromen is so intent on lending Kuklinski a humanistic touch that he lazily injects false moments of sentiment that smear The Iceman. A jarring scene depicting Kuklinski’s abusive childhood is truly the only attempt to pin a why to it all – a disposable scene of little worth.
Michael Shannon has made something of a career playing the off-kilter, but his character in The Iceman simply flounders in shallow writing. With little more than a menacing glare, Shannon simply doesn’t have much to operate with. An even bigger injustice is Vromen’s handling of Ryder’s character. Naïve and unaware of her husband’s misgivings, she functions as an emotional punching bag. Vromen’s attempts to romanticize the acts of a murderer would have been better served without the pretense of being a true story. His efforts are more in replicating recorded acts with the intersecting compromise of adding a tinge of humanity on the killer’s off-time. There’s just too much replication and too little self-realization. There’s a compelling and insightful film to be made out of this subject matter; The Iceman is not it.