Movie Review Rewind: The Iceman (2012)

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The Iceman gets its title from the notorious New Jersey contract killer Richard Kuklinski. It’s believed he killed over 100 men before he was finally arrested in 1986. He got the nickname “The Iceman” from his cold, icy stare but, more importantly, his habit of freezing his victims for a long period of time in order to confuse with the time of death. The film, directed by Ariel Vromen, unwraps and puts on display the life of Kuklinski and becoming a murderer-for-hire while trying to live the American dream. Eventually, his two worlds collide and everything begins to crumble down around him along with Kuklinski himself spinning out of control. Vromen, with the help of a powerhouse performance by Michael Shannon, makes The Iceman a suspenseful mob thriller and an even better, more compelling character study.

The film opens up with us seeing the softer, sweeter side of Kuklinski (Shannon). He is on his first date with his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder). It is something we only get a glimpse of because it does not last. It’s not long until we see the monstrous, menacing side of Kuklinski and it’s terrifying to see how unaffected he is by it. He first gets in to business with the mob when he begins working for mob boss Roy Demeo (played by the always terrific wise guy Ray Liotta). Kuklinski kills for him and only him. And while he is making a handsome living murdering guys, this ables him to provide a nice life for Deborah and their two daughters. The craziest part about all of this is his family thinks he is a currency trader, and have no idea what he is truly capable of.

At the beginning, Kuklinski appears to have a strong grip on his double-life and is able to keep business and family separate. However, once Roy gets in to some hot water, he has to let Kuklinski go and forces him in to early retirement. Needless to say, this does not go over well for him because he needs the money and is not ready to call it quits. He gets paid really well because he is good at what he does. And things get much messier from there as the blood pours and the bodies pile up. The line gets blurred as his personal and professional life cross paths which puts the only thing he cares about, his family, in harm’s way.

Before I get to Shannon’s dominant, intense performance, I have to mention the impressive talent that surrounds him. Liotta seems to always play the cool mobster who never messes around. Now he is not the same shady crook from Killing Me Softly. This time around he is back to being the tough guy who is not afraid to put a gun to your face and pull the trigger. Roy is responsible for bringing Kuklinski in to the business and paying him to clean up his messes. But he is also the same man who let the monster off his leash in the first place.

Then there is the almost unrecognizable Chris Evans who plays a guy simply named Mr. Freezy. He travels around in an ice cream truck and sells ice cream during the day while having his freezer full of dead bodies. Freezy is in the same kind of business as Kuklinski and even hired by the same folks. It is here where Kuklinski learns about the frozen bodies and the dismemberment of them. 

At the same time, it is where Kuklinski discovers a new way to kill people without ever using a weapon and getting blood on his hands. Freezy is a wizard at creating poisons and making deaths look natural and less suspicious. The Iceman and Mr. Freezy did make one hell of a team. Their ways were different but it certainly got the job done.

The most emotional and heartbreaking performance belongs to Ryder. She plays a wife and mother in disillusion. She loves her husband and the kind of life he has been able to give to her and their children. In her mind, her husband has a credible profession and is a loving, caring husband and father. However, once Kuklinski begins to change and lose his temper more and more, she knows something is wrong but is frightened to find out the truth.

She is unable to recognize the man she married and only sees a man who is becoming self-destructive while tearing his family apart in the process. And through it all, Ryder shows the right amount of courage and carefulness to stick with her husband until she is left with no other choice than to let him go in order to save herself and their daughters.

Shannon had to be the only choice for playing the titled role. His look and presence on-screen in other films is unnerving so it’s only fitting for him to become Kuklinski. In mesmerizing fashion, Shannon plays a man whose true identity is a pure monster. There is a beast within him that is just waiting to come out and play. No matter how convincing he may be as the perfect family man to everyone else, there is no tricking himself. He knows exactly what he is.

There is a real disconnect when it comes to Kuklinski and the rest of the world, which eventually causes all of the pent-up torment and madness to come out and show its ugly face. Soon it becomes too much to handle, even for The Iceman. It can easily be said the film would not be what it is without Shannon’s forceful portrayal of a man who was capable of loving but spent most of his time being ruthless. A transformation that should be seen to be believed and Shannon is one of the rare few who can pull it off.

The Iceman is gritty and gruesome, but is more than just a true-crime thriller. Vromen puts together a personal story focusing on an individual who is lost but finds his true calling, one in which most of us could never imagine doing with our lives. The film’s approach is dark yet fascinating. Vromen makes us engaged with what Kuklinski is doing because we are witnesses to his other life, the life where he makes love to his wife and takes his daughters to school. Kuklinski may have issues with restraint, but Vromen does not. He displays great self-mastery and no matter how insane the story or the man himself gets, Vromen’s focus is never lost.  

The Iceman works on so many levels, but it comes down to Vromen letting Shannon work his magic by bringing a cold-blooded killer back to life while revealing the only soft spot he may have ever had. It’s a chilling experience with an unforgettable performance.

Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.

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