By the time Richard Kuklinski was captured in 1986, he was said to have murdered more than 100 people. Reportedly a killer even before he turned pro for the mob, he was also so cagey his wife and daughters apparently had no inkling of what he did for a living. No film could make sense of a personality like that, and The Iceman, a true-crime thriller from Israeli-born director Ariel Vromen, doesn’t exactly try. Alternating scenes of the psycho-as-family-man with an increasingly grisly and desperate series of hits, it makes for a surprisingly monotonous sit for a movie that also features a killer named Mr. Freezy.
The film is primarily a showcase for Michael Shannon, who exudes his by-now-signature imperturbable menace while donning a succession of period-appropriate facial hair. In flashback, the film (adapted from a book by Anthony Bruno and a 1992 HBO documentary featuring interviews with Kuklinski ) begins with the eponymous sociopath meeting his wife (Winona Ryder), for whom he poses as a cartoon-dubber. Never too busy to attend his daughters’ roller-rink outings or write a poem for one of their sweet 16 parties, he leads a parallel life as the wiseguy underworld’s most cold-blooded killer. Early on, he proves his worth to kingpin Ray Liotta by shooting a homeless man in broad daylight. James Franco lasts only one scene, while Chris Evans is barely recognizable as Shannon’s ice cream-truck-driving partner, who helps put their victims in deep freeze.
Lurid material doesn’t guarantee a vital film, and it may be that the story told here is ill-suited to a traditional biopic structure. Apart from a few close calls and rare hints of moral conflict, as when Shannon frees a 17-year-old witness, tension is in short supply. The blandly episodic narrative could use less glib sensationalism—Evans and Shannon small-talk while carving flesh—and more of the family’s perspective. (Ryder, speaking in a heavy Jersey accent, seems trapped in a particularly thankless part.) With little to say about the character other than “what a sociopath… but he loved his family,” The Iceman coasts on morbid curiosity. Lacking a coherent perspective or point of entry, it leaves the viewer frozen out.