By Linc Leifeste | May 17, 2013
Director: Ariel Vromen
Writers: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen, Anthony Bruno (book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer”), Jim Thebaut (documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer”)
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Danny A. Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, James Franco, Stephen Dorff
Michael Shannon. My God. Michael Shannon. If you want to see a perfect example of an actor dominating a screen and elevating a solid if somewhat pedestrian film to something approaching the sublime, look no further than The Iceman. When is the actor that director Jeff Nichols referred to as “the greatest actor in the world” going to become as renowned as his talent and role selectivity warrant? Contrary to my expectations, his performance in Take Shelter didn’t do it. But between this stupefying performance, his recent legendary Delta Gamma sorority letter reading, and his upcoming turn as General Zod in Man of Steel, it’s only a matter of time.
Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) was a real-life American monster, a Jersey City hit man and mass murderer who admitted to murdering over 100 people, although the true body count is unknown but possibly much higher. While the film hints at potential reasons for Kuklinski’s psychopathic behavior, with a flashback of violent physical abuse at the hands of his father and a jailhouse visit to his younger brother (Stephen Dorff) who is imprisoned for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, it never tries to explain why he does what he does, which works in the film’s favor. Instead the film allows its Kuklinski to do what he evidently did best, to kill with ruthless detached efficiency while effectively maintaining a domestic double life with his wife and two daughters. Interestingly, as violent and emotionally detached as the film’s Kuklinski is, it seems that the real man was a hundred times worse.
The films opens in 1964 with Kuklinski and his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) on a coffee shop first date, the Grim Reaper tattoo on his hand only momentarily giving her pause as he intensely pitches woo in an awkwardly charming fashion (think James Caan wooing Tuesday Weld in Thief). When asked what he does for a living, he claims to dub Disney films although it’s soon revealed that he’s actually involved in manufacturing porn films. Soon after we see him pool sharking and get a sense of Kuklinski’s propensity for extreme violence in his response to a smart-talking sore loser. But it’s only after he comes to the attention of the Gambino family mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who pays a visit to Kuklinski’s workplace to express his dissatisfaction with the operation, that his murderous talents are allowed to fully blossom. We see Demeo and his crew drive Kuklinski around before handing him a revolver with orders to kill to a random homeless man. Shannon portrays the resulting murder with a masterful blend of hesitation and cool indifference. In a blending of evidently true events Kuklinski’s regularly travels to Hell’s Kitchen to carry out random murders of homeless men solely to perfect his skills is wed with Demeo ordering him to murder a random man out walking his dog to produce a single more sympathetic act of violence.
Soon after, Kuklinski is out of the porn business and serving as a regular enforcer and hit man for Demeo. As his hits pile up, the money flows in and his wife continues to buy his story of being a master of international finance. No doubt the ever nicer clothes, jewelry, cars and houses played a role in his ability to successfully pull the wool over his family’s eyes. For a while, things roll along relatively smoothly, but this is the story of organized crime, murder and drugs and soon enough things get complicated as Kuklinski finds himself in conflict with Demeo over his refusal to kill a young female murder witness. As well, one of Demeo’s lieutenants, Josh Rosenthal (a delightful pony-tailed and mustached David Schwimmer), is repeatedly screwing up and breaking the rules, in the process putting Demeo into conflict with rival families.
Ultimately, Demeo pulls the plug on Kuklinski’s hit man career and the associated income, leading Kulinski to choose to test the free market against Demeo’s clearly stated wishes. For a time he finds himself teamed up with another hit man even more brutal and ruthless than he is, Robert Prongay, nicknamed “Mister Freezy” (Chris Evans, nearly unrecognizable in his chilling portrayal) because he drives an ice cream truck to disguise himself. It is from Mr. Freezy, naturally, that Kuklinski picks up the nickname “the Iceman” after adopting his habit of freezing his victims’ bodies before eventually dismembering and disposing of them, in the process helping to disguise the causes and times of deaths. As the film jumps along, telling Kuklinski’s story from the mid-60’s up until his 1986 arrest, the tension escalates as Kuklinski’s unsanctioned extracurricular activities begin to draw the ire of Demeo and others.
While much of The Iceman looks and feels like any number of other quality gangster films that have been made over the last few decades, and we all know that Ray Liotta consistently kills it in these roles, none of those earlier films had Michael Shannon. I don’t want to sound like a broken record in singing his praises but his work has the ability to stand right alongside earlier similarly genre-elevating performances from actors such as De Niro and Pacino. Maybe most interestingly, while not exactly sympathy, I found myself feeling something for Shannon’s Kuklinski, in some weird guilt-inducing way hoping that he wouldn’t be caught, wouldn’t fail in his efforts to keep the wolves at bay. No doubt, some of that comes from director Ariel Vromen’s intentionally selective choices in portraying him as a victim, a killer of equally depraved criminals, a man with a moral code (refusing to kill women and children) and a loving husband and father, painting undoubtedly a misleadingly generous portrait. But we see plenty of Kuklinski’s rage, violence, hate and cold detachment. It’s Shannon’s gripping portrayal, alternately subdued then violent, one moment emotionless and the next raging out of control, that allows a monster to be humanized, and that is one hell of a feat.