Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, and James Franco
Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen
Directed by Ariel Vromen
Boy, did I have high expectations for this film. I’m a big fan of true crime stories and I had The Iceman in my festival top ten. The story of Robert Kuklinsky is one that’s interested me for the better part of ten years. Kuklinski was notorious for the killings he carried out over his adult life and lauded by those who worked with him for his innovative ways of disposing of his bodies. His story has a very cinematic quality which I thought could make for an exciting film adaptation if handled by the right filmmaker. As it turns out, Ariel Vromen is as capable as any first time director I’ve seen, but the decisions in the script to abandon certain aspects of his life and over-dramatize others as well as an overall blandness and sterilization of the factual violence that happened in reality severely hinder The Iceman. This coupled with some inexcusably bad performances from actors that have no place in the film leaves this as one of the more disappointing films of the festival.
The Iceman is the true-life story of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, one of the most notorious hitmen in the history of the American mafia. The film chronicles the early beginnings of Kuklinski’s adult years, from his time as a sound technician in the adult-film retail distribution business to his rise as a reliable problem-solver for the Gambino crime family, all the while keeping a seemingly squeaky clean image as a loving father who provides for his family as a market trader. I will spare the inclusion of any additional plot breakdown as it would spoil the sole reason to watch this film, and that being the titular character’s story is and remains interesting. Viewers who are unaware of Kuklinski’s history in American crime will find the story interesting and entertaining, but those who know the true story will be frustrated.
The most damning aspect of The Iceman is the script. Important moments in his criminal life are never mentioned. In no single moment is there a sense of terrifying dread that was present in every interview and account of his life I had researched in the past. Aside from one or two total lines of dialogue in the entire film, the subject of the Gambino crime family, even their name, is never mentioned. Characters are the film equivalent of cardboard cut-outs. The murders portrayed are few and far between and are shown in bunches in a series of montages, with the exception of a few. The pacing is severely flawed as any tension that is built dissipates thanks to attempts at creating domestic drama. The filmmakers obviously didn’t care for the family aspect of the story and it’s surprising they went back to it during the one or two times the plot was actually moving smoothly.
The acting wasn’t as bad, but it was ultimately disappointing and didn’t do the filmmakers any favours. Michael Shannon was an inspired choice to play the titular character, but I feel as though he missed his mark and perhaps just couldn’t fully realize the demands of such a two-sided sociopathic killer. I applaud him for trying because of the appeal of such a role, I just didn’t find him scary at all. For such an imposing character I found his performance rather nonthreatening, however I feel these problems for the most part were due to the script and not the actor. Surprisingly, I really liked Winona Ryder in this film; she plays off of Shannon’s emotions perfectly as his loving wife Deborah Kuklinski. Ray Liotta as Roy Demeo is his usual bad self, doing nothing better or worse than he’s done for the latter part of his career. The rest of the performances are as poorly written as everything else, but what makes them even worse is the inclusion of a group of actors that bring zero to the table and leaves one to wonder why they are even there. First is David Schwimmer as a soldier working under the guidance of Demeo. His performance is awful and is only surpassed in its awfulness by his porn star moustache and the performances of the other two in question. One of those is Chris Evans, who plays Robert Prongue, a fellow killer who befriends Kuklinski. Evans plays his character much like his earlier performance as the dumb jock in Not Another Teen Movie. Lastly we have James Franco, who makes a short cameo, the likes of which have been deservedly chastised by a fellow writer at Entertainment Maven in a review of Aftershock. Portraying Marty the scumbag, his character is only onscreen for a brief time before meeting his end in one of the better moments of this messy film.
There isn’t much else to say except that this was a greatly unsatisfying film that had all the elements in hand to tell an interesting and fresh story and were squandered and lost almost solely thanks to poor decisions in the script process. I can only hope the director finds a better script for his next feature, while this is the second straight poor choice for Michael Shannon. I think I just may avoid him until Superman returns to fight him in next year’s The Man of Steel.