Pity the cast of Ariel Vromen’s dreckish and embarrassing hitman saga The Iceman. With a few exceptions (say, David Schwimmer, who can’t escape his character’s marked-for-death imbecility), the performers here take Vromen and Morgan Land’s screenplay about real-life assassin Richard Kuklinski quite seriously indeed. It’s understandable, since one does have to go to work with a certain amount of dignity. But with as patently absurd a film as this, it might have been better if everybody involved had gone the David Gordon Green/Adam McKay route and played all the bloody mayhem and glowering stares as cackling black comedy.
Michael Shannon takes an unfortunate turn down Christopher Walken street with his portrayal of Kuklinski, a New Jersey-based killer who claimed over the course of numerous jailhouse interviews that he had done in some 100 people over several decades. With his Frankenstein loom and creaky metronome voice, Shannon doesn’t have much trouble playing a man who is hired onto a Mafia crew for his psychotic unflappability. What is harder to buy is Shannon’s stony-faced Kuklinski convincingly playing a dedicated family man by day, whose wife (Winona Ryder) and two girls love him dearly and never suspect that their father doesn’t go to work to trade currency but to kill men by the dozens with knives, guns, cyanide sprays, or garrotes. This Kuklinski is so itchy and antisocial that he would be the first person suspected if their suburban neighbors’ dogs and cats started disappearing.
Since most of what transpires in The Iceman is taken from Kuklinski’s own accounts (many of which have the scent of jailhouse vaingloriousness), it’s hard to know what to take seriously; particularly his claims to never having killed women or children. Because he’s a psychopath with a code, you see. What appears certain is that Kuklinski worked for many years as a hired killer, frequently for various organized crime elements, and that he didn’t really have any regrets about it.
The unfortunate result of this is seeing Vromen’s period detail-slathered film (read: much unfortunate 1960s and ‘70s facial hair) exhaust itself trying to jam in as many cliches as possible from both the gangster and psycho-killer genres. Ultimately, neither of them gain much traction, because just when the film starts to be making some headway with illuminating Kuklinski’s murky psyche, it flips over to a generic Mafia social club where Ray Liotta is working overtime to freshen up his thousandth variation on the hapless gangster boss. Trying vainly to rustle up some manic comic-relief energy is Chris Evans as Kuklinski’s accomplice, Robert Pronge, a blithely homicidal hippie who tools around in a Mister Softee truck and stacks his victims in the deep freeze so the police can’t establish time of death.
One cliché that might have helped Vromen escape the sinkhole of turgid boredom might have been the creation of a dedicated cop or federal agent obsessed with the idea of taking Kuklinski down. As it stands, with no true insight into Kuklinski’s character (there are glimmers of an abusive upbringing, followed by a troubled childhood of killing animals), we are left with nothing but one brooding killer surrounded by potential victims. Once just about every character is dead, it’s hard to understand what one is still waiting around for.