THE ICEMAN. Is Michael Shannon good in the role of Richard Kuklinski?

“The Iceman” intrigues before the screening, but leaving us in a stupor somewhere in the middle.

Lukasz Budnik

3 February 2024

the iceman

Richard Kuklinski, the son of a Polish immigrant, is undoubtedly the quintessential hitman of all time. He earned his infamous reputation through the blood of nearly 200 victims. Few colleagues in the industry can boast such an achievement. However, what most captivates attention in this character is the fact that he led a double life – that of a killer and that of a loving family man. A monster with a human face? In moral relativism, everything is possible.

It has long been known that stories of all kinds of degenerates have been and continue to be fodder for filmmakers. One could say that this perverse pleasure we experience while observing the face of a murderer is comparable to the fascination with a wild animal behind the bars of a zoo. Unbridled evil seen from the right, safe perspective will always be a tasty treat for the audience. Now is the time for the fictional version of the life of the “Iceman” – the infamous hitman operating on behalf of the Gambino family. Although I know that he is a significant figure, possessing the right allure, I am not entirely convinced that such a constructed story can still be attractive to today’s pop culture audience.

the iceman

The reason for my doubts is simple: the nature of the events in the film and the “complicated” psychology of the leading character are already very familiar to us. Kuklinski may not have been the protagonist of any previous story, but the spirit of his dark deeds has lingered in cinema for a long time. Over the years, the character of Kuklinski has undoubtedly inspired numerous crime writers, incorporating elements of his personality, pioneering killing methods, etc., into many murderer portrayals. We got to know Kuklinski better through documentary films dedicated to him. Therefore, making a fictional film about this infamous executioner seems rather pointless to me.

But what also hinders my appreciation for the filmmakers’ good intentions is the way this questionable plot was woven. “The Iceman” inherently tells the tale of an inherently evil character. Kuklinski’s actions are skillfully relativized. Instead of showing the vast darkness that took over his soul and emphasizing the cruelty he propagated, the creators chose to focus on Kuklinski’s relationships with his family and how important they were to him. Truly, it brought a tear to my eye. I don’t question his dedication to his family, but for heaven’s sake, does the story of a man who cold-bloodedly took the lives of nearly two hundred people really need to be presented in such a polished and morally relativized way? Yes, because if we live in times where until recently a popular series featured a protagonist, a certain Dexter – a blood-splatter analyst who moonlighted as a murderer, choosing his victims based on his own moral code – then it’s not surprising that filmmakers can portray even such a unequivocal personality like Richard Kuklinski in a favorable light. Judge for yourselves if they made the right decision.

the iceman

Michael Shannon played Kuklinski in the film. It might seem that an actor known for roles with complex characters would fit perfectly into Kuklinski’s shoes. Nothing could be further from the truth. What most negatively influences my perception of his performance is my knowledge of archival interviews with “The Iceman.” Shannon interpreted Kuklinski in a manner consistent with what he had presented in some of his previous roles. The famous murderer, in his rendition, has very limited facial expressions, is quiet, and distant – much like Agent Van Alden from “Boardwalk Empire.” However, after familiarizing myself with recorded interviews with Kuklinski, I noticed that his expressions were much more varied – his piercing gaze and cynical grin stood out. We won’t see that with Shannon, which undoubtedly detracts from the film.

Several other aspects of the film are on a reasonably decent level. For example, the rich cast, featuring many well-known and respected names. Perhaps Chris Evans’ performance, teetering on the edge of self-irony, impressed me the most, but it was equally enjoyable to see Winona Ryder returning to form. However, this does not change the fact that, overall, “The Iceman” is a classic mediocrity, intriguing before the screening, but leaving us in a stupor somewhere in the middle. The only option left is to go to to once again see who Richard Kuklinski truly was – how he spoke about himself sincerely and without reservations.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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