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Michael Shannon may be the star of The Iceman, Ariel Vroman’s disturbingly engrossing crime drama based on the story of real-life New Jersey contract killer Richard Kuklinski. But while Shannon appears in most scenes, he’s never really there. The vacancy he conveys behind Kuklinski’s eyes, along with his dexterity with an ice pick—or one of the many pistols he always keeps handy—is a remarkable, can’t-look-away achievement that elevates what could have been another pedestrian gangster personification into perhaps Shannon’s most memorable role. Think of the actor’s unsettling contributions to 2008’s Revolutionary Road or 2011’s Take Shelter. They were warm-ups.
Shannon’s performance even makes some of the more unfortunate casting choices forgivable, such as Ray Liotta (who can do thug in his sleep, but here merely reminds us of his similar role in last year’s awful Killing Them Softly), and—!!—a ponytailed, goofily mustached David Schwimmer (who may never leave Ross Geller in the dust, at least not by playing so ridiculously against type). The Iceman also features Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s clueless wife, Deborah. From the couple’s awkward first date until one of the film’s final scenes, in which Deborah sits in a courtroom with their daughters, both aghast at what she’s learning about the man she’s revered and struggling with her still-present love, Ryder efficiently phases through adorable, worshipful, semi-confrontational, but mostly in-denial mother hen, somehow glowing the entire time. You forget all the Free Winona craziness.
From the start, Kuklinski lies to Deborah, telling her he dubs Disney films for a living when he’s really dubbing porn. He’s not yet a killer for hire, though he casually slices the throat of an acquaintance who dares talk trash about his new, virginal girlfriend. And when he is noticed by mob boss Roy Demeo (Liotta) and passes a test of murdering a random bum, Kuklinski explains his sudden increase in income by saying he’s made a career move into currency exchange, which Deborah doesn’t question until years later when he starts getting visits from suspicious, oily men.
The Iceman, based on a book, a documentary, and a script by Vromen and Morgan Land, covers Kuklinski’s life from the mid-1960s to the time of pagers, with the killer’s changes in facial hair marking the years. His executions are all cold and quick (with the exception of one, in which he chillingly gives his victim time to pray to see if God will save him), and status doesn’t matter to him; he kills both superiors and strangers with the same ease. Things unravel for Kuklinski when he’s forced to go freelance, with his disloyalty and mistakes now endangering the family he’s constantly claiming to love so much. Indeed, he’s portrayed as gentle with Deborah and his girls, but readers of his biography know that the real Kuklinski regularly battered his wife.
The rare occasions in which his rage is roused in the presence of his family are terrifying: When a driver curses them all out after a fender bender, Kuklinski psychotically chases him down with his wife and daughters pleading for him to stop. It’s intense—and unforgettable. Still, the Kuklinski family remained in the dark until Richard’s arrest in 1986. According to a postscript, he died in prison and never saw his wife and children again. And this addendum highlights another of the film’s achievements: Somehow, you feel sorry for Kuklinski, confirming the seemingly impossible goal of portraying someone who was both man and monster.