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Review: The Iceman (2013)

The Iceman (2013)

Directed by: Ariel Vromen

Premise: A dramatization of the life of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a legendary contract killer who worked for organized crime bosses from the 1960s to the 1980s.

What Works: The Iceman is a very well made picture and it is both a tough and thoughtful dramatization of the life of Richard Kuklinski. This picture straddles two genres, the gangster picture and the serial killer film, and that combination is very effective because the filmmakers are able to play the elements of those genres against one another. Serial killer movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer are character studies of murderers and their psychosis and The Iceman possesses this quality. Although Richard Kuklinski was a mob enforcer and a contract killer, his violence is rooted in something very personal and his acts of violence are an expression of that trauma. At the same time, The Iceman is also a gangster movie like Goodfellas and gangster pictures are always about money and power. The filmmakers use the elements of the serial killer film and the gangster picture to offset one another. Movies about organized crime have a habit of romanticizing the violence of the criminal underworld but The Iceman is not romantic at all. This film is shot in a cold and unsparing style and scenes of violence are executed in a way that emphasize the awfulness of the killings. But at the same time, the violence of The Iceman is always tied to economics. When Kuklinski takes on the duties of a mob enforcer he is able to provide for his family and as he rises amid the ranks of organized crime he perpetuates greater violence and reaps greater rewards. All the while Kuklinski hides his work from his family and his wife makes a point to avoid questions about where the money comes from or how Kuklinski spends his days. That makes The Iceman partly a character study of a psychopath but it is also an economic metaphor in which violence and profits go hand-in-hand. The smart manipulation of genre expectations allows this movie to go deeper than the typical serial killer or gangster film. Aside from its thematic accomplishments, The Iceman has a number of other success, one of them being its production design. The story takes place over the course of several decades and the filmmakers handle the passage of time very well. This film successfully captures the flavor of its temporal location in the costumes and sets and it streamlines decades of events and exposition into a sleek and coherent narrative. The Iceman also features some great performances. Michael Shannon is cast as Richard Kuklinski and the actor is on familiar turf. He has frequently played violent or deranged characters in movies like Revolutionary Road, Bug, and Man of Steel. But Shannon also brings an earnestness and even a humanity to his character. The stress that he incurs while trying to provide for his family is played in a way that will be familiar to the experiences of a lot of viewers. The Iceman also includes impressive supporting performances by Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s wife and Chris Evans as fellow hit man Mr. Freezy.

What Doesn’t: The Iceman includes a few high profile actors in supporting or cameo roles including David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, and James Franco. The casting of these actors in such small parts is sometimes distracting. Although all of them are quite good, the casting creates an expectation that these roles are more important to the story than they actually are. The Iceman also has a tendency to look televisual instead of cinematic. The framing of the movie and the style of the cinematography sometimes look less like a feature film and more like a made-for-television production. But as that it is nevertheless impressive.

DVD extras: Featurettes, trailers.

Bottom Line: The Iceman has a lot going on in it that is interesting for fans of the serial killer and gangster genres and it is extremely well acted. But The Iceman also delivers as a thriller, making it worthwhile viewing for general audiences as well. Those who are entertained by movies like Zodiac and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer should definitely check it out.

Episode: #469 (December 15, 2013)