The Iceman tells the true story of Richie Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a hired killer for the mob estimated to have offed at least 100 people and whose nickname, which gives the film its title, originated from his calculated manner of disposing bodies: freezing them so that the time of death couldn’t be ascertained. Unfortunately, while The Iceman gives a very good idea of how many murders Richie committed from the ’50s until his 1986 arrest, his freezing method is passed over with barely any notice, as if it’s a petty detail in the face of so much killing, and in ignorance of the fact that, perhaps especially when your protagonist is a deranged killer, the devil is in the details.
To a deleterious extent, the film portrays Richie as merciless, amoral, and, in the head-slapping words of his boss, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), “cold as ice.” Even during a brief bit of psychological profiling meant to tie Richie’s childhood abuse to the Iceman he would later become, young Richie’s emotionless eyes just as easily confirm what’s implied by the numbing consistency of adult Richie’s cold-hearted behaviour: Nothing caused or led to the Iceman, as he was born this way. The only softening of this ruthless characterization comes late in the film when we discover that Richie has a code: He won’t kill women or children. By that point, however, the information is little more than a confusing exception to Richie’s personality as we’ve witnessed it so far.
Shannon plays Richie with the same quiet intensity and skill one expects after his work in Boardwalk Empire and Take Shelter, which revealed him as a master of the tight-lipped man with a troubled soul. But Shannon’s great skill in the HBO drama and Jeff Nichols’s film was how he let an unsettled interior percolate until it eventually blew up before us. In Iceman, Shannon has no interior to play with, since the film seems intent on ridding Richie of any emotion other than love for his family, and also no catharsis to build toward: We’re made aware of all the evil Richie is capable of in the film’s third scene when, after a brief dispute in a pool bar, a young Richie sneaks into an alley, cleanly slits the throat of his opponent, wipes the prints, and calmly walks away.
Shannon does his best with the limited material, and Winona Ryder has a nice turn as Richie’s worry-prone but oblivious wife, but their efforts are further undermined by the thin and familiar, decades-spanning mob story. After being brought up by DeMeo, a Gambino family associate, Richie is left temporarily without income when DeMeo chooses to lie low after a coke deal and hit go wrong. So Richie goes freelance with Robert Pronge (a startling, almost unrecognizable Chris Evans), a betrayal that DeMeo doesn’t take kindly. The common denominator throughout is death. It’s hard to think of a scene in the film where a gun doesn’t get pointed at someone, and only slightly easier to think of one where the gun doesn’t go off. That’s not entirely surprising, and perhaps is appropriate, considering Richie’s profession; it’s certainly possible that Richie Kuklinski was little more than a killing machine. But if he’s worthy of a biopic, then one ought to hope that violence was just the tagline to his life, not the entire essence of it. Unfortunately, besides seeing just how many era-appropriate hairstyles and beards its characters can model in one movie, this telling of Richie’s story seems to care about body counts above all else.