Richard Kuklinski is not your typical cult figure. The serial killer monetized his behavior by working for the Mob for more than two decades, and he died in 2006 at age 70 under suspicious circumstances while serving five consecutive life sentences for murder. He is believed to have killed more than 100 men — but no women or children. A hit man must have principles.
Two main factors set Kuklinski apart from most psychopaths. Throughout his career he successfully maintained a double life by balancing his murderous activities with a mundane suburban existence, complete with a wife and kids who knew nothing of his true calling. Once he was caught in 1986 and incarcerated, he talked eloquently about his life with criminologists, psychologists, journalists and filmmakers, detailing his horrifying crimes while calmly explaining how his abusive father created a monster. The results included bestselling books and a lurid HBO documentary series. Probably the most surprising thing about The Iceman, a based-on-true-events Kuklinski biopic from co-writer and director Ariel Vromen, is that Kuklinski's fascinating story took 25 years to find its way to the big screen.
Vroman does a nice job of recreating the dingy, low-rent feel of New York and New Jersey in the 1970s, even though The Iceman was shot almost exclusively in Shreveport, La. The Mob-centered movies from that era by directors like Scor-sese and Coppola serve as obvious touchstones. But the reason people will be talking about The Iceman well into next year's awards season is Michael Shannon's breakout performance in the title role. Shannon was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2008's Revolutionary Road, and his star has risen with his ongoing work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. As the endlessly tormented Kuklinski, Shannon delivers the kind of indelible work that leads to lifelong A-list acting careers. By the end of The Iceman, you may be surprised to recognize you've just spent two hours rooting for a cold-blooded killer to resolve his inner conflicts and defeat the mobsters who abuse him — all in a movie that's too graphically violent for mainstream audiences. Shannon's Kuklinski is that human and real.
Familiar faces surround Shannon throughout the film — because that's what it takes to get a Hollywood movie made in 2012 when your star is a relative unknown. Winona Ryder turns in her best work in ages as Kuklinski's wife, a woman who makes an almost conscious decision to ignore the clues to her husband's double life. And Ray Liotta displays his usual flair as the mid-level mobster he's played too many times to count. James Franco and Stephen Dorff chip in with single-scene performances, presumably so the producers could point to the very fact of their presence if the financing suddenly dried up. By the time you realize that it's David Schwimmer (Ross from the TV show Friends) hiding under a massive 1970s mustache to play a fledgling hit man, it's too late — The Iceman has set its hook. Cults always find a way to attract new members.
— KEN KORMAN