Richard Kuklinski was incarcerated in 1986, almost 40 years into a career as a ruthless killer that resulted in 100 murders. The Iceman is a seat-clutching thriller that lucidly captures the gruesome crimes of Kuklinski, as well as his paradoxical fervent family values as a father and husband.
Director Ariel Vromen’s mob aesthetic brings a riveting edge as it shows Kuklinski, played by Michael Shannon, in a more humanized light. Yes, he’s a hitman, but he doesn’t just kill anyone. In the film, he expresses that he doesn’t kill women or children, faintly making him a more compassionate killer.
Shannon’s portrayal of the merciless murderer elicits a mixture of a psychotically angry hitman and devoted family man living an inconceivable double life. It’s hard to believe that Kuklinski is killer when he’s reading a poem to his daughter on her 16th birthday. Vromen illuminated Kuklinski’s family values, conceivably something rarely done in serial killer movies.
The Iceman’s star-studded cast, including Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta and David Schwimmer, is added details to the story that help propel the intensity of the film, but the true star is Shannon. His talent to portray a dark, morbid character arguably proves that he’s able to go from reading the deranged sorority girl email on Funny or Die’s website to portraying a disturbingly threatening mass murderer.
The screenplay, written by Morgan Land and Vromen, was based on the 1992 HBO documentary, The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With a Killer and a book by Anthony Bruno, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer. The HBO documentary captures an aged and reflective Kuklinski in prison, which is almost perfectly replicated in the film with a gray-bearded Shannon.
The film cleverly juxtaposes Kuklinski as an emotionless killer to a compassionate father, which illuminates his complexity. When it came to murder, it almost always seemed as if he was numb to his actions, slightly as if he was as frozen as his victims, but his feelings were vigorous when he was with his family. It’s as if he had two different personalities that were wrapped into one man.
A series of transformations are shown throughout the film from a shy, soft-spoken Richard to an aging grey haired prisoner. Since his murders spanned decades, the time periods and methods of killings are also transformed. From knives to guns to cyanide (food poisoning), Kuklinski tried it all until he started getting sloppy, leaving his mark everywhere.
The film ironically starts with a timid Richard in 1964 as he innocently dines with schoolgirl Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder), his future wife. Her attempts to get him talking work with his hesitant compliment that “she is a prettier version of Natalie Wood.” The innocence in that scene almost instantly highlights the relationship and values he has towards her, which poses as an extra detail to his future relationship with his daughters.
Soon after, a scene in a barroom with Richie and several guys display a different side to him when it shows his first effortless killing between him and pool player. He impresses big time gangster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) when he expressionlessly stares the gun pointed at his face. After testing his loyalty, the rest is history. About 10 years pass, and a suave dressed Richie is now a contract killer murdering in class.
Watch the official trailer for The Iceman below.