MRR Review: "The Iceman"

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The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters have any clue about his real profession. Starring Michael Shannon, James Franco, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, David Schwimmer, Stephen Dorff & Robert Davi.
3.5

MRR Review: "The Iceman"

-- Rating: R (some sexual content, pervasive language, and strong violence)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: May 3, 2013
Directed by: Ariel Vromen
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

"The Iceman" is the fictionalized retelling of the true-life story of mob hitman and probable serial killer Richard Kuklinski. When Kuklinski was arrested in 1986 for killing an estimated 100 to 250 people, his family had no idea that he was a ruthless killer. Instead, they knew a devoted family man who provided for his family as a banker. However, after he was caught, Kuklinski bragged that he killed his first victim when he was a young teenager. It is this dichotomy between Kuklinski's home and work life that director Ariel Vromen uses to create a multifaceted account of a cold-blooded killer.

The film opens in 1964, when Kuklinski had just begun to court his future wife, Deborah Pellicotti. Although Kuklinski is bootlegging pornographic movies, he tells Deborah he dubs animated films for Disney. When Kuklinski is with her, he has a certain charm and the ability to make her laugh. But being on a date also doesn't stop him from later slitting the throat of a man who insulted her. Kuklinski also catches the eye of a local mob boss, a man who appreciates Kuklinski's ability to kill without hesitating. Soon, Kuklinski is a full-time hitman. As he ascends within the mob hierarchy, he marries Deborah and she gives birth to two daughters. Kuklinski still manages to keep his two lives completely separate; Deborah believes he is trading in the stock market. When he decides to do some freelance killing, he begins working with another hitman and together, they store their kills in the back of an ice-cream truck. His former mob boss takes offense at this show of disrespect, and suddenly, Kuklinski's family is in danger from his hidden life.

Audiences who are familiar with Martin Scorsese's more human portrayal of the mob or David Chase's Tony Soprano may be disappointed with this film. In "The Iceman," the tone is as cold as its titular character. The screenplay, written by Vromen and Morgan Land, takes a clinical, almost art-house approach to the material. This choice of tone may have been influenced by the source material used; they were inspired by the 1992 HBO documentary "The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman" and the 1993 true-crime book, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer,
by Anthony Bruno. Most of the script also sticks to standard tropes of Jersey mobsters and the families who love them, but who are oblivious to the realities of the mob lifestyle.

What makes "The Iceman" different than many of these other mob films is the unrelenting bleakness of this tale. Years are marked by a few hits mingled with other acts of casual violence. The cool color palette and careful work by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski further reinforces the gloominess of Kuklinski's world. Bukowski's work combined with Vromen's direction sometime gives "The Iceman" the feel of a documentary. Yet at other times, the inherent tension and violence in Kuklinski's story creates the ambiance of a carefully constructed horror movie.

The true strength of this picture stems from the incredible work of skillful actor Michael Shannon, who plays Kuklinski. Shannon's cold blue eyes and expressionless gaze are the perfect pairing for Kuklinski's obvious psychosis. However, what's most interesting to watch is Shannon's way of portraying a clearly unstable man who is carefully navigating between being a family man and a cold-blooded contract killer. Kuklinski may have a certain type of ethics (he doesn't kill women or children), but a few redeeming qualities doesn't change the fact that Kuklinski is clearly a psychopath. Shannon is unafraid to portray Kuklinski as a monster with only a few human traits.

As Kuklinski's wife Deborah, Winona Ryder delivers a convincing portrayal of a woman with immense devotion to her husband and an almost child-like demeanor. She's less convincing as a working-class Catholic girl from Jersey, but she still forges a convincing connection with Shannon's Kuklinski. Better yet is her work towards the end of the film, where she must reconcile her loyalty to Kuklinski with his crimes, as she sits in the courtroom during his trial.

Chris Evans also delivers a knockout performance as Mr. Freezy, another contract killer. Evans disappears within the role of a creepy ice-cream truck owner who experiments with cyanide sprays and other effective ways to kill people. Ray Liotta is also frighteningly believable as the mob boss who nudges Kuklinski into his trade.

"The Iceman" may not break any new ground, but the performances from the cast are consistently top notch. The characters that Vromen delivers may seem familiar, but they are also fascinating to watch. People interested in taking a chance on this bleak, cold film will be richly rewarded with a carefully constructed art-house crime drama.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5