Imagine being married to a man for half of your life who you believe to have worked himself up from blue-collar roots to white-collar investment and currency-exchange work.  You’ve raised two daughters, live comfortably in the suburbs, and have what seems to be a normal life … until you find out that he’s a hit man for the Mafia. What happens when your world comes crashing down?

That might have made a very interesting film, and that is how The Iceman got marketed.  The film, based on the actual story of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, instead focuses on the sociopathic Kuklinski’s career in the rackets as a one-man Murder Inc, whose only purported principle is that he won’t kill women and children.  Kuklinski did a series of interviews with HBO in the last years of his life, captured in oddly mundane but chilling documentaries which went a long way toward proving the point about the banality of evil.

That’s part of the problem with The Iceman, too.  By focusing on Kuklinski rather than his family, we see a mainly stolid Kuklinksi waltz through a series of mob hits with no impression that it matters much to him — a very accurate portrayal, as the Iceman documentaries showed, but it’s numbing and disengaging to watch (not to mention depressing and dismaying).  Michael Shannon is brilliant as Kuklinski, especially at those few moments of conflict between his work and his family life, but the problem is the character and not the actor.  Banality wears thin, even with gritty and realistic action sequences to break it up.

Unfortunately, Winona Ryder gets wasted (ahem — figuratively speaking) in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah, who is only seen in her benighted, illusory suburban life, except for a non-speaking court sequence at the end.  Had we seen somewhat less of the Iceman’s real work — and less of the complicated mess of mob politics at play, which has little to do with the central conflict in Kuklinski’s life — the film could have spent a lot more time on Deborah and her daughters. How did she come to terms with her earlier life as the unsuspecting spouse of a serial killer? How did she and her daughters cope with the consequences? Despite a set-up promising some exploration of those issues, we get nothing but the penultimate court sequence.  That doesn’t leave much for Ryder than adoring-wife vignettes and a couple of maybe-something’s-wrong sequences that don’t appear to register with her until Kuklinski’s arrest, which is also apparently accurate with real life.  It also doesn’t leave much for emotional connections for the audience.

As a character study, though, The Iceman is certainly worth watching, if for nothing more than Shannon’s performance.  Another surprise is action-film star Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as Mr. Freezy, based on real-life hitman Robert “Mr. Softee” Prongay, who fits right into the gritty tenor of the film.  Ray Liotta and Robert Davi contribute good performances, as does David Schwimmer as Liotta’s incompetent protege.  James Franco and Stephen Dorff appear in cameos, and John Ventimiglia does well as a hotheaded lieutenant of Liotta’s.  It works in its way as a period piece, as a noirish throwback to morally ambiguous action films of the 1970s.  Interestingly, the sequences with the Kuklinksi family have a orange-sepia color tone that’s familiar to anyone who took snapshots in that period, with the paper of the era having trouble fixing developed color properly. It’s a subtle but noticeable attempt to humanize the Kuklinksis, and shouldn’t go unremarked.

After a desultory run at the box office this spring — a strange time of the year to release this kind of film — The Iceman just hit the Blu-Ray/DVD market.  On the four-point Hot Air rating scale for BR/DVD releases, I’d give this a 2 — or a 3 for fans of Shannon and/or gritty and ambiguous 1970s-style gangster films, a genre that seems to be gaining traction in Hollywood these days:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Iceman is rated R, with strong language, realistic violence, and sexual content.  It’s not appropriate at all for children or teens.