There are so many good things in The Iceman that one wonders why the movie as a whole doesn’t quite work. This based-on-fact story of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a Mafia hit man who allegedly murdered more than 100 people even as he kept his career hidden from his family, is full of nice little character touches and fine performances, particularly from the star-studded supporting cast, but something seems amiss at its core. The problem might actually be (gasp) Michael Shannon himself — shocking, because he’s one of our greatest actors — who is only half-right for this film’s portrait of Kuklinski.
Shannon can exude menace like nobody’s business, but he doesn’t always do ordinary well. Here he has to do both, as the film wants to work the tension between the doting family man and the ruthless killer. Early scenes are promising: When we see Kuklinski out on his first date with Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder), whom he will eventually marry, their clumsy, forthright courtship feels just right. “You’re a prettier version of Natalie Wood,” he says, awkwardly. “I don’t look anything like Natalie Wood,” she blushes. His response — “To me you do” — is a touching little encapsulation of how love often works. (I was reminded of a friend who once told us his girlfriend looked like Sharon Stone; none of the rest of us saw it, but he did, and that was all that mattered.) The film reaches another tense, powerful high point early on when Kuklinski does his first hit — on an innocent bum that local mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) asks him to kill, just to see if he can do it.
After that, though, things get dodgy. The Iceman unfolds mostly as a series of fragmented episodes, usually ending with somebody getting whacked. Along the way, Kuklinski befriends fellow contract killer Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Mr. Freezy, who operates out of an ice-cream truck and introduces our man to the idea of freezing corpses to prevent coroners from establishing time of death (hence the nickname “Iceman”). Time passes, fashions change, we get a montage or two showing Kuklinski at work, but director Ariel Vroman doesn’t quite manage enough narrative momentum to carry us along. There is some kind of internal mob politics going on involving DeMeo, a henchman named Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer), and a higher-up played by Robert Davi, but little of that really registers. The film seems torn between the (roughly) historical tale it has to present and the character study it wants to present.
Instead, we find ourselves watching these great actors finally getting some meaty parts: Ryder is perfect as the deluded spouse — she knows something is wrong, but can never grasp just how wrong — and Liotta nearly runs away with the movie as a mob boss with a strange, paranoid sense of honor all his own. Everybody else in the supporting cast seems to be in fine form, too: James Franco shows up briefly as a pornographer (as is traditional), and even he manages to evoke some sympathy.
The real-life Kuklinski wasn’t so cinematically conflicted, it seems. He was a bona fide serial killer, who’d already murdered lots of men for sport before landing a mob gig, and a wife-beater, to boot. (Also, he claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa.) But understandably, The Iceman doesn’t want to be a horror flick. Nor is it, despite the familiar structure and the presence of Liotta, a mob tragedy à la Goodfellas — there’s little allure to its portrait of the gangster life. Rather, Vroman seems more interested in exploring the duality of Kuklinski’s life. But that requires us to buy a bit more into the family-man side of this opaque figure, and we just can’t.
It’s not that Shannon doesn’t have range: He actually has a lot of it, and films as diverse as Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter have beautifully showcased his vulnerability. He is, however, incapable of being mundane, or anonymous; that is both his greatest gift and his biggest curse. He does everything technically right here; witness the adorable little fist-pump Kuklinski gives after nailing a poem recital on his daughter’s birthday. But it all feels cerebral. Maybe that’s the point — to suggest that there’s a curtain between this man’s capacity for great evil and the everyday world around him. But The Iceman provokes more confusion than it does questions.