This review was originally published on September 12, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
There are really only two stories in the world. The first, the oldest and most common, is your standard hero mythology. You'll find this technique in works ranging from "Superman" to "The Natural" and the "Lord of the Rings" franchise. The second, a slightly more modern story construct, is the anti-hero myth. Consider "The Dark Knight," most of the works of Quentin Tarantino and "Boogie Nights" as decent examples of modern anti-hero storytelling. The hero story started, many thousands of years ago, because folks need inspiration. The anti-hero offshoot came about once the world became more complicated, motives less clear, real "heroes" tougher to find.
Strangely, these origin stories end up being fruits from the same tree, utilizing an eerily similar equation. Your hero does great things because she's great. Easy enough. An anti-hero occasionally does bad things, or is just plain mean-spirited, in the service of a greater good because he or she's been unjustly wronged. Still, "good" is generally the outcome, with only the methods changing, based upon context. Notable outliers of these twins are stories audiences don't quite know what to make of, your "Apocalypse Now" and "Leaving Las Vegas" style of movies. These oddballs always strike a discordant note because it's hard to know where to put them in your memory bank, as they don't really fit with anything you've seen or are emotionally equipped to process. Now then, what if you made a film about a bad person doing bad things for bad reasons where the sum result is bad, and then, right as the audience was disconnecting, screamed out, "Wait, this guy wasn't all bad!" Only he was. He was very bad, indeed.
The dramatic re-telling of the story of hit man Richard Kuklinski, "The Iceman" brings Michael Shannon to the big screen as a brutal mob enforcer. (You can read about the entire sordid story here if you like spoilers.) The film seeks to offer some sort of "reason" for Kuklinski's vicious nature, as well as setting up a framework for where his loyalties were truly placed. Michael Shannon is his normal level of great as Kuklinski, and he's joined in bit parts by Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta and Chris Evans, all of whom acquit themselves well given the material underneath them.
At the outset, Kuklinski is just a violent man with an extremely loose version of "right and wrong." He loves his wife and children, but he lacks the emotional tools needed to realize all his victims likely appreciated their wife and kids as well. He's your standard psychopath, only bigger, as he towers over his targets at 6'5", 300lbs.
Can Kuklinski keep working for the mob and maintaining his double life for the sake of his family? What do you make of his innovative way of killing people? A bigger question looms over the entire endeavor, though: Do you care? When presented with a protagonist who is fairly uninteresting, one who violently murders legions of innocents while maintaining a hypocritical facade, can you bring yourself to feel either way about him? The answer, unfortunately for this film, is "Nope." The enemy of all storytelling is disconnection and boredom, and that's precisely the hurt locker this one finds itself in.
For when a film doesn't teach, doesn't offer hope and presents a bleak vision of humanity coupled with a ham-fisted rationale for the darkness, well, your best bet is to turn your back on that sort of effort. It's eminently clear that "The Iceman" had little regard for humanity... and it's just as clear we should have about the same level of interest in his story.
SCORE: 4.5 / 10