These days, mafia films have become somewhat clichéd. Whether it is the distinctive lingo, the casual killing, the constant use of the term “business” and the bevy of shiny suits and slicked hair, people know what to expect when they walk into a mob thriller. Ariel Vromen’s “The Ice Man”, however, does not feel the need to fulfill the checklist of expected tropes and, therefore, does not succumb to platitude. Yet, I was not totally satisfied. There is something missing and, to be honest, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what that “something” is. Like Al Pacino’s wiseguy character in Donnie Brasco, I could smell that something wasn’t right, but not pinpoint exactly what that something was.
A Criminal Mind
Vromen’s “The Ice Man” follows Polish-American contract killer Richard Kuklinski from his beginnings as a pornographic film dubber to one of the most prolific and deadliest Mafia hit men in the United States. Along with the criminal aspect of the film, Vromen simultaneously captures Kuklinski’s relationship with his family who are utterly ignorant of his criminal mind. Winona Ryder plays Kuklinski’s loving and naïve wife Deborah who Kuklinski seems to adore for her innocence-bordering on idiocy -in her complete lack of a desire to know what he does. When New Jersey crime boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) discovers Kuklinski’s ice cold demeanor in front of a gun, he recognizes his potential and, in forcing him to ruthlessly and randomly kill a homeless man on the side of a New York street, he hires him to kill for the Mafia. Kuklinski becomes notorious for being a cold-blooded and professional killer and is sought after in New York’s criminal underground. It becomes impossible for Kuklinski to find work when his boss, Demeo, is forced to lay low and compels Kuklinski to do the same. Rather, Kuklinski begins to hire himself out along with a new associate, the wily and demented, Mr. Freeze (Chris Evans), to all the Italian families in New York and New Jersey. This not only upsets Roy Demeo, but unravels Kuklinski’s life and professional reputation.
Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Richard Kuklinski is certainly the glue that holds “The Iceman” together. Without Shannon’s subdued approach to the character of Kuklinski and his ability to capture the utter chill that the character exudes, the film would completely fall apart and the audience would not be able to grasp the complexity of Richard Kuklinski. Shannon’s ability to hold down emption yet reveal the only love in Kuklinski’s almost black heart, his family, offers a depth to the character who would otherwise risk being seen as one-dimensional.
Indeed, what the film lacks is backup for an otherwise outstanding performance by Michael Shannon. He has no one to work off of. Ray Liotta plays his usual tough guy mob figure and Chris Evans’ a.k.a. Mr. Freeze, although a compellingly manic character, it is neither developed nor offered enough screen time. Ryder’s character is hard to take seriously because of her inability to grasp what is going on around her. Furthermore, there is a large cast of secondary characters whose relationships to Kuklinski and the story are difficult to discern. David Schwimmer’s portrayal of a pathetic errand boy for Demeo was difficult to take seriously, however, that may be due to his portrayal of the neurotic Ross on “Friends” and his lack of work post-television.
In “The Iceman” there is certainly a compelling story. Therefore, the fact that Shannon’s title character holds the film together does not spell a failed-film. However, the issue with the film is that the viewer was unable to access the world around Kuklinski and thus have better insight into his mind and his drives. The tone of the film, however, gives the viewer a sense of the bleak and dreary world of Richard Kuklinski. The greenish tint of the camera lens and the almost voyeuristic position of the camera allows the viewer to penetrate Kuklinski’s psyche enough to make him a compelling character. Certainly, Vromen’s “The Iceman” offers a new approach to the Mafia film, which is also a positive characteristic of the film.