Read the book – ‘The Iceman’ is a woefully underdeveloped disappointment, even for those who know nothing about the man.
Having read Philip Carlo’s biography of Richard Kuklinski ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’, I can say that Ariel Vromen’s big screen adaptation ‘The Iceman’ is a big disappointment. While the author had a habit of repeating himself and some of Richard’s recollections seemed rather dubious in places, Carlo’s lengthy book was an engrossing read, I enjoyed it very much.
The problem with the film is that it’s awfully constructed; it’s all so terribly rushed. It fails to develop both the narrative and subsequently the character of Richard Kuklinski, glossing over almost everything that made the book such an interesting read. I appreciate that cramming in one’s life story into a screenplay can be a difficult task, however there are major flaws in the script that could have easily been avoided – it should’ve been scrapped and completely rewritten.
His unspeakably awful childhood, for instance, is covered with an utterly perfunctory flashback scene that lasts for all of about 15 seconds. This is a fatal mistake, because it was his harrowing formative years that shaped Richard.
Stanley Kuklinski, his deeply cruel father, conditioned his son with the daily violence he inflicted upon his whole family. After Stanley dealt Richard’s brother Florian a particularly malicious beating, he died from his injuries; the police were told that he fell down a flight of stairs. Richard’s mother was also a callous, unpleasant person; despite her zealous religious values she had no qualms about battering her children with a broom handle. Even when Richard sought solitude in the placidity of his local church as an altar boy, nuns would punish him by splitting the skin on his knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. All of this relentless anguish was compounded by his family’s total destitution.
When 13-year-old Richard also became the victims of local bullies, it all became too much for him – he beat one of them to death with a pole and discarded his body with brutal efficiency. Kuklinski recalled that it was at this moment that he discovered ‘it was better to give than receive’. The passages of Carlo’s book that cover his youth make for appalling reading; unfortunately none of this power is to be found in Ariel Vromen’s rather boring adaptation.
Lacking also are the details of Kuklinski’s career. The book recalls Kuklinski’s methods of murder, the way he stalked his prey and his utter indifference towards his victims’ suffering. Very little of this was explored in the film, we get little more than a brief montage of random people being blown away – it’s all so damn rushed and disorganised. Considering what a desperately violent individual Kuklinski was, ‘The Iceman’ is a rather neutered production. It has none of the visceral qualities that shock you like in ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas’, mob films that draw you into their brutal world where death is merely ‘business’.
Not only is the narrative woefully underdeveloped but it’s also sheer fiction in many instances. Despite having great dramatic material to work with, Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land decided that their own version of events were better. Even the more faithful scenes have been tweaked and messed about with for no discernible reason. For example, Roy DeMeo didn’t introduce Kuklinski to contract killing, he had already had a career with the New Jersey DeCavalcante crime family and had killed scores of people both professionally and privately. It also forgets to depict the savage beatings Richard used to give his wife Barbara and the pernicious effect it had on the family dynamic.
As you have probably heard, Michael Shannon is the highlight of the film. Much like the real man, he has a steely reserve and an explosive temper; he also resembles him in both appearance and speech. However, despite his best efforts, Shannon is completely let down by the script. While Shannon is indeed cold and calculated, the film fails to truly capture Kuklinski’s aura of menace and particularly his notoriety in Mafiadom.
While the performances are fine, ‘The Iceman’ is quite frankly ruined by total underdevelopment. If I had entered the film with no knowledge of the man, I would have found it a boring, mediocre mob film. But knowing the depth and drama of this tragic figure means that ‘The Iceman’ is a complete misfire that deserves much more. The only thing that it successfully achieved was the credibility of its period styling.