The Iceman is the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a man who grew up an altar boy, spent time dubbing porno movies, and later became a hitman for the mob responsible for the murder of a least 100 people. And director Ariel Vromen finds the perfect actor to project that effortless sense of menace in Michael Shannon.
Shannon is wonderful as a man trying to provide for his family in 1970’s New Jersey while keeping what he does a secret from them. And he is surrounded by a fine cast; Ray Liotta and Robert Davi playing up their “threatening scumbag” personas to a tee, and David Schwimmer and a barely recognizable Chris Evans letting their inner scumbag out to play and doing it quite well. Stephen Dorff has a small yet memorable role as Shannon’s incarcerated younger brother, a man who hasn’t hid his violent pathology from public view as well as his older brother. And it’s so nice to see Winona Ryder doing, well, anything. She plays Kuklinski’s wife, who thinks her husband makes all of his money dealing international currency and slowly begins to see the violence that resides beneath Shannon’s placid facade.
Unfortunately, The Iceman isn’t nearly as entertaining as the performances. For a movie full of interesting and energetic performances, this movie is curiously without spark. Director and co-writer Vromen doesn’t have a lot of insight into Kuklinski; the movie is like a character study, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest in character. And that’s a shame, since Richie Kuklinski seems to be a gold mine. We see a very brief moment of him being abused as a child, and that’s all the back story we get. And as wonderful as Shannon is with what he has, he doesn’t have much to work with. He’s cold and steely eyed when we first see him, and he’s that way through the entire movie. And that’s how it is with all of the characters; there is no arc for any of them, except Ryder’s character. What you see at first glance is what you get in terms of character, and since the plot isn’t all that surprising, we lose interest in what’s going to happen next.
I’m going to assume that Michael Shannon’s career is going to skyrocket once his performance as General Zod is unleashed upon the world in the upcoming Man of Steel. And deservedly so. Now that Christopher Walken has become a cuddly parody of himself, Shannon has inherited the roles of the dangerously unhinged. What makes him remarkable is how many variations he’s able to find, no matter the size of the role. He only had a few scenes in Revolutionary Road, but his role as the one person in the white-picket-fence Connecticut suburb in the 1950’s who sees through the pleasant facade and cannot go along with the crowd, won him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. His starring role in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, about a man who sees apocalyptic visions, should have won him a nomination as well.
The Iceman is worth checking out, if only for the performances. But given this material, it’s a shame that the movie isn’t more gripping or shocking. And here’s what I hope for Shannon: I hope once he becomes really famous, he will continue to take on interesting parts in smaller movies. It’d be a shame for someone as talented and unique as Shannon to become just another amusingly weird guy.Follow @filmbyfelix