The Iceman is inspired by the shocking true story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. Kuklinski began taking on any mob job that came his way after his longtime boss laid him off for letting a witness go. He developed a technique to kill anyone without suspicion, freeze their bodies to hide the time of death, then leave them to thaw where the coroner's report would declare death by natural causes. The greatest strength of The Iceman is the authenticity of the screenplay. The only thing more important in the suburbs than status is family. Screenwriter Morgan Land and writer/director Ariel Vromen make Kuklinski a family man above all else. His mob boss is a family man. The rival gang leader is a family man. His partner in the killer for hire business is a family man. They all lead perfectly normal lives except for when the illegal business is happening.
This does not mean that their neighbors, friends, and families are depicted as naive rubes, the standard trope for any mob story. Kuklinski's wife begins to suspect something is wrong pretty early on. She chooses to ignore it so long as her family is safe.
The girlfriends and wives teach each other to maintain control of the house and make sure the family is properly provided for. The neighbors and friends do their best to stay on Kuklinski's good side even when strange men in fancy cars start pulling him out of birthday parties and private dinners for quick meetings. They all know what Kuklinski is involved in; they're just smart enough to keep their mouths shut and their noses clean.
The Iceman is a smart and engaging crime drama. Kuklinski's story is sensational enough that the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Ariel Vromen aims for realism at every turn. The film begins with a recreated scene from the documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer, where Kuklinski is asked if he has any regrets about his life of crime.
The story jumps back many years to when Kuklinski went on his first date with his future wife Deborah. We get to see the sparks fly that started a strong family before we see any illegal activity in the film. Shoot, Vromen opts to actually downplay the depravity of The Iceman to make the story more believable, only hinting at potential spousal abuse and Kuklinski's own criminal history before getting tangled up in the mob.
The cast is more than up to this naturalistic approach. Michael Shannon once again proves he's one of the greatest working actors with a totally transformative performance as the strong and silent Kuklinski. Winona Ryder gives her best performance in years as the increasingly put-upon Deborah, actually coming across as more cunning and calculating than the mob hitman.
Ray Liotta is in familiar territory as Kuklinski's mob boss. However, the focus on family wherever you choose to form it gives him a much wider emotional range to explore than his typical tough guy roles. Chris Evans rounds out the main cast as a rival hitman who will do anything for money. The actors play so well off of each other that none of their scenes seemed forced or contrived.
Like the killer himself, The Iceman is a quiet film that carefully chooses when to let its voice be heard loud and clear. It's brutally accurate to period--the high fashion looks of the wealthy suburbanites in 1970s Jersey are as terrible as you would imagine--and never insensitive to the lives of the victims or criminals involved in the story.
It's very telling when a narrative film pulled straight from the headlines doesn't brag about it being a true story in the opening credits; a true story doesn't need to advertise its origins to be great.
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