The true story of Richard Kuklinski is utterly horrific yet utterly compelling. A vicious enforcer for the mob in the New York area for two decades between the 1960s and the '80s — and likely even a more traditional sort of serial killer before that — he murdered more people than we'll probably ever know about. He even claimed to have offed Jimmy Hoffa. All the while, Kuklinski maintained a totally normal suburban lifestyle with a wife and kids who never knew what he did for a living. They liked him at his church.
Even knowing what we know about how charming and likable the most sociopathic violent men can sometimes be, it's hard to fathom how no one caught up to the truth about Kuklinski. Did his wife, Barbara, actually know, or at least suspect, and fool herself into looking the other way? Just how convincing a performer was Kuklinski?
Alas, The Iceman — based on the copious interviews Kuklinski gave from prison, where he died in 2006 — barely even broaches this great mystery. It's not that it actually avoids the matter, either, however. There are indeed a few scenes of happy family life interspersed with the great horrors Kuklinski perpetrated. We simply never understand how the two halves of this man's life could possibly have fit together.
Alas for poor Wynona Ryder, who portrays Mrs. Kuklinski. (Here she's renamed Deborah because Barbara Kuklinski, who is still alive, wanted nothing to do with the production.) Ryder deserves a meaty role and is denied it here, as if all-but-novice screenwriters Ariel Vromen (who also directs) and Morgan Land saw no reason to actually examine how or why a woman could be so clueless and/or self-deluding.
The real Mrs. Kuklinski has hinted at violent physical abuse in the relationship, but the one quick scene that depicts such in the film pops up from nowhere and instantly recedes, forgotten, into the background. The untold story here would seem to be hers, or perhaps how an apparently "normal" and "happy" home life either helped or hindered Kuklinski in his work.
Instead we get an oft-told tale, though one that does come alive in a few places that make it worth a look. As Kuklinski, the always-electrifying Michael Shannon enjoys what may be the fullest expression of his smoldering on-screen rage yet. James Franco appears briefly as one of Kuklinski's victims, and this one scene is the single most gripping in the film for its contrast between how a feeling person faces death and how a robotically cold one deals it out. (I can't wait to see these two magnetic actors together again onscreen for more than just a few minutes.) Chris Evans has a bit more screen time as another killer Kuklinski teams up with later in his career, and there's an uncomfortable pitch-black comedy in their teamwork.
Even at its most watchable, however, The Iceman feels like a pale imitation of Goodfellas — a film that did blend seamlessly a violent man's work and family life. (The comparison is nearly unavoidable, what with Ray Liotta in a small role as a mobster here.) There's a whole half of the story missing from The Iceman, and without it, this isn't just cold, but sterile in ways it shouldn't be.