Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans
Based on the true story of ‘The Iceman murders’ and told over the course of over 20 years from the 1960s to 1986. Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) is a simple man who works as a technician editing porn films, until a chance meeting with local mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) in which Demeo sees potential in Kuklinski’s cold-as-ice temperament, and so offers him work as one of his heavies. After this Kuklinski never looks back, and becomes a very well paid and successful contract killer, meanwhile raising a family with and being a loving husband to his wife (Ryder) with them being completely oblivious to his profession. When mob politics forces him to find work not sanctioned by Demeo, Kuklinski works with Ice cream van driving contract killer ‘Mr. Freezy’ (Evans). However, conflictions of loyalty, ever increasing paranoia and a rising death toll put Kuklisnki’s ability to easily manage his two alternative lives in severe jeopardy.
So, here we have another ‘based on a true story’ film, apparently a ‘shocking’ story in this case. I have no idea what is real and what has been exaggerated within the film, however there is no avoiding the fact we have a protagonist who has killed in cold blood over 100 people. Yet this is a protagonist driven narrative, so surely we have to care about him and side with him? I will not spoil the ending, though I think it is pretty obvious even to those that do not know the story what happens. As soon as Kuklinski takes his first victim in no way do I ever like him. Maybe we are supposed to sympathise with him by the end, but I personally found it impossible to feel any compassion to a man that has killed that many people in cold blood. This is not taking anything away from Michael Shannon’s performance, he is a magnetic screen presence, I genuinely felt intimidated by him. However, if you cannot sympathise with a protagonist when the film is about them then for me it can never be more than a six out of ten at best.
Two words that constantly went through my mind while watching were ‘conventional’ and ‘solid’. This is a well made film that is very atmospheric and captures the particular decades it is set in very well with set design, cinematography and the clothes (as well as facial hair). It is consistently watchable and admittedly grips for its entire lean 105 minute running time, but always feels like it just going through the motions and once finished I forgot all about it. The acting is also good; Winona Ryder is a character to genuinely care about and gives a great performance while Chris Evans is admittedly quite cool and likeable despite also being a contract killer. Ray Liotta is playing against type as a psycho (!) but he does it so well, and David Schwimmer not only looks like David Seaman (tache and pony tail) but does suit the pathetic nature of his character quite well. Why James Franco turns up for one scene is beyond me and Stephen Dorff is excellent in his one scene that provides interesting insight into Kuklisnki’s back story.
Kuklinski is a potentially interesting character due to his back story, but this is still not justification for cold blooded murder. Also, though he is dedicated to his family, it is hard to see past the fact he is so brutal and his temper often rears its ugly head at his family. He is a complex character without doubt, but never a sympathetic one. As the narrative develops and both the tension and paranoia mount there is no denying it is all engrossing but as the inevitable conclusion unfolds there really is no emotion there at all, when maybe director Vromen thinks there is. To the film’s credit, it never glamorises killing like some films do, but once again there is no avoiding the fact it has hard to sympathise with a protagonist that is a cold blooded killer who kills solely for monetary gains, and as the narrative develops to put to rest his paranoia. There have been many great films with highly unsympathetic protagonists or anti heroes throughout the history of cinema, but these have taken on broader themes and certainly not been Hollywood biopic-by-numbers films.
Well made and extremely watchable, but enormously conventional and forgettable; The Iceman is a showcase of great acting and immense facial hair, but without a protagonist to sympathise with lacks any true engagement.