First of all, I have to hand it to The Iceman for opening opposite Iron Man 3; they can make a half-hearted counter-programming argument, but frankly its particular brand of Serpico-esque 70s nostalgia appeals to the same demographic ready to throw down with Tony Stark. The filmmakers certainly have faith in their product, and to a certain extent, that faith is justified. Just make sure you thank the casting director for it; it’s nothing without her.
The man’s name was Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) and he’s tailor-made for those gritty crime sagas of the post-Watergate era. Better known as “The Iceman,” he killed over 100 people for various crime families in the New York and New Jersey area over a period of two decades. That’s of less interest to the film than the fact that he kept it hidden from his wife and family right up until the moment when the cops threw him down on the hood. The man raised compartmentalization to an art form. At home, he was a loving father, a kind husband, and supposedly a currencies exchange expert who did quite well speculating on the money in money. Then he got in his car, drove away and dispatched multiple underworld weasels in various horrific ways. He was careful and cautious. He never did anything halfway. And even when things began to unravel, his stony, unflinching façade remained a sword and shield to protect him.
We’ve seen our share of mob sociopaths in the movies, along with various glimpses into the sordid world in which they live. The Iceman ultimately can’t break out of that formula, cloaking it all in sepia-toned memory without bothering to fit it with a properly developed plot. Things happen seemingly at random, progressing only by virtue of Kuklinski’s changing hairstyles and the age of his daughters. He makes friends with a fellow killer named Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans, very effective), moves in and out of the graces of mob king Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and dotes upon his blissfully innocent wife (Winona Ryder, also rocking it) all without any noticeable sense of forward progression.
Were that all The Iceman brought to the equation, it could be easily ignored without a second thought: decently produced, but unable to find anything new to say about its subject. Its trump card is Shannon, a performer blessed with the ability to speak volumes with his silences. I thought a lot about Boris Karloff watching him here: he carries the same mute menace, looming presence, and the unique way of sucking the energy out of the room before firing it directly at the audience. Kuklinski really deserved his title. He had no soul to speak of, and his utter detachment from his fellow man allowed him to become exceedingly good at his job. Director Ariel Vroman remains fascinated by his façade – the mask that made him appear perfectly normal to those closest to him – and in Shannon finds an aptly terrifying vessel in which to pour our worst fears.
That makes The Iceman fly as an interesting character study more than a Mafia fable, letting us look into this man’s eyes and ponder the abyss lurking on the other side. It’s an unsettling journey, but it leaves us wiser for the experience… which wouldn’t have been possible had they stuck to the warmed-over Sopranos knock-off it all-too-easily could have become. Is this the right rime to release it? Sadly, I fear not. A little Oscar heat around its leading man might have helped its prospects considerably. Instead, it must rely on word of mouth to find its audience when all the filmmaking world is concentrating on a much flashier entry. I won’t lie: you’re going to do better suiting up with Tony Stark. But for something quieter, darker and definitely unexpected, The Iceman sits waiting. Imperfect perhaps, but ultimately undeniable.