Like Sofia Coppola in The Bling Ring, director Ariel Vroman intentionally detaches from the subject, deliberately keeping us at arm’s length, so that we see what happens without being forced to immerse in the grotesquery. On the one hand, it is a wise instinct. After all, watching a contract killer commit murder after murder could quickly grow tiresome. On the other hand, it decreases the film’s emotional impact and ultimately renders some powerhouse performances less effective than they might have been if Vroman had been willing to delve more deeply.
Michael Shannon is fantastic as our anti-hero, Richard Kuklinski. Shannon captures the psychopath’s emotionlessness and awesome physical superiority at every turn, never straying too far from it so that we cannot identify his family man as one in the same as the efficient killer with whom we spend the most time. Even better, while preserving psychopathic consistency, Shannon adds a touch of humanity, a touch of empathy and caring, whenever he’s with his family, which lets us see just how Kuklinski compartmentalizes his life.
Ray Liota doesn’t stretch himself by playing unraveling mob boss Roy Demeo, but he plays the character well all the same. David Schwimmer as Josh Rosenthal is terrific, insofar as he doesn’t summon undue attention, doesn’t slip into comedy or caricature. Schwimmer shows us a character who is simply in a world he cannot navigate. He is not dangerous enough. He is not smart enough. He is doomed, by his own incompetence and displacement. Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy is also fantastic in his limited screen time, ranging into a darkness, an edge you probably wouldn’t predict, given his ownership of Captain America. Of all the supporting players, however, it is James Franco, in an extended cameo as a sleazy pornographer, who does the best work. His scene is short, but Franco is a revelation. It’s the best I have ever seen from him.
Wynona Ryder is tragically wasted as Richard’s wife, Deborah. Hers is easily the most sympathetic character in this film and Ryder is good to very good as the marginally victimized wife who both loves and fears her husband, which means Deborah could have been our moral compass in The Iceman. She could have been the character through whom we felt and about we whom we cared. She could have been the way in which writer/director Vroman and co-writer Morgan Land highlighted Shannon’s Kuklinski and made us care about the psychopath’s impact. But she isn’t. Instead of being used to create feeling, Ryder’s Deborah is relegated to bit player status.
That is the real failure of this film. While it probably hits the beats for which it aims, it never makes us care all that much. We don’t care about Richard the way we care about Dexter in the early seasons of Showtime’s series. Nor do we care all that much about Deborah, at least not the way we might have if Vroman had dared to force us to immerse in his film’s darkness.