Directed by Ariel Vromen
Written by Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land
The Iceman exists in a strange kind of cinematic purgatory, in which reside those movies that are both too rushed and too slow. With actors like Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Winona Ryder among the key players, this period piece about a particularly sociopathic Mob enforcer’s rise to some level of infamy is, at best, decent. But the script fast-forwards through so much of its lead character’s life and allows seemingly mundane events play out in near-slow motion, making The Iceman a drawn-out experience.
Shannon is Richard Kuklinski, a hulking but quiet young man whose job working at a porno lab circa 1964 leads him to working as a cold-blooded hitman for mid-level mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), taking out any number of people who’ve done Roy or his bosses wrong. Kuklinski balances his dark day job with an idyllic life at home with his wife Deborah (Ryder) and his two daughters. Eventually, Kuklinski finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile his infinitely scary temper with his more placid family life. The trouble with The Iceman is that the story plods along in covering the big picture, but speeds along past the more pressing details.
If nothing else, Shannon is extremely well-cast as Richard Kuklinski, tapping into his endless reserves of being the 21st-century version of Christopher Walken. His Kuklinski is constantly coiled, ready to explode on an unlucky bystander if they make one wrong step, yet frequently able to appear emotionless, hence his moniker that constitutes the title. Though Shannon is predictably impressive, the script, by Ariel Vromen (who directed the film) and Morgan Land, offers so few details about Kuklinski outside of cluing us into the fact that he’s a mean, dour, sociopathic dude, so he feels so incomplete. What The Iceman truly needs is to have its characters’ backstories fleshed out far more, from Kuklinski to his boss to more supporting characters.
Take, for example, the relationship between DeMeo and his right-hand man, Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer, trying and failing to shake the Ross Geller stigma). DeMeo and Rosenthal have a close bond, almost as a surrogate father and son. How do we know this? Because DeMeo sits Rosenthal down and, in the midst of scolding Rosenthal for using his boss’s name in mixed company, reiterates their basic relationship. This kind of lazy expository writing occurs a few times in The Iceman, as when Kuklinski’s best friend from outside the Mafia tells him, “Richie, I’m your best friend.” (Kuklinski’s response: “It’s true.” Such sparkling dialogue.) Certainly, The Iceman is far from the first movie to commit this sin, but the unnecessary exposition is exceedingly obvious because it’s a poor substitute for more fully developed characters. DeMeo and Rosenthal, going back to the previous example, never interact with each other outside of DeMeo having to deal with his underling’s attempts to steal money and drugs, making this subplot even odder for how shoehorned-in it feels.
Unfortunately, some of the best aspects of The Iceman are its trips into the random, either in casting or in plot. When Schwimmer shows up, it’s something of a shock—partly because of how poorly Vromen establishes scenes and the characters being introduced within them. It takes a few more minutes than necessary to be certain you’re looking at Schwimmer and not a lookalike. Or when younger actors like Chris Evans show up, decked out in a goofy, 70s-era wig, the film livens up a bit. But too often, The Iceman moves achingly slow, and gives off the sensation that you’ve missed the opening minute of each scene, making it difficult to truly understand Kuklinski as a person or even a monster. (At a crucial moment halfway through, Kuklinski visits a New Jersey prison to talk with his brother, thus allowing the audience to realize that Richard Kuklinski apparently had a brother, and he was in jail.)
The Iceman has a ridiculously overqualified cast, its sole asset. (Ryder is well-cast as Kuklinski’s wisp of a wife, but never given any good material to work with.) However, actors, even those as entertaining to watch do anything like Michael Shannon, are only so talented. Shannon, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, and others can do a bit to make us forget or forgive the flaws inherent in this movie’s direction, pacing, and script. A profile of a Mob enforcer, even coming after seminal movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather, has the ability to impress and entertain, but The Iceman rarely does because it barely has a pulse.
— Josh Spiegel