Seems that the world has discovered Michael Shannon. And, really, why not? Quite apart from his considerable skills, the 38-year-old Kentucky native offers up a unique screen presence, with his towering physique, flat bass voice, beetle brows, and as lethal a glare as any actor around. He can be very funny, as we’ve seen in The Runaways or that video in which he reads a crazed sorority girl’s e-mail to her sisters. However, in dramatic pictures his smoldering-volcano intensity raises the threat level in every scene he’s in, especially when he’s playing mentally unstable types, as in, well, take your pick: Bug, Take Shelter, TV’s Boardwalk Empire, or his Oscar-nominated turn in Revolutionary Road.
In The Iceman, he plays a stone-cold psychopath, and even though he’s been better elsewhere, he’s still pretty much the only reason to watch this bleak, monotonous mob drama. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, the real-life contract killer who murdered more than 100 people for the New Jersey mafia. The story picks up in 1964, as Richard is recruited from a pornography operation by an underboss (Ray Liotta) to carry out hits for the Gambino family. For Richard, killing people is no bigger a deal than swatting houseflies, so this career move makes a great deal of sense. Nor does he change his behavior much when he marries his girlfriend Deborah (Winona Ryder, with a shaky Jersey accent) and fathers two daughters (all of whom believe that Richard is a currency trader). Before he’s identified and caught, the press nicknames him “The Iceman” for refrigerating his victims’ bodies to confuse law enforcement about time of death.
Based on Anthony Bruno’s book about Kuklinski and Jim Thebaut’s documentary The Iceman Tapes, the movie has been adapted by Ariel Vromen, a first-time feature filmmaker from Israel. Vromen makes the rookie mistake of treating this mobster’s story as if it’s classical Greek tragedy. He wants to follow in the footsteps of Coppola and Scorsese, but those filmmakers cut the seriousness of their gangster films with dazzling set pieces. Vromen doesn’t have that type of flair, not even when the material presents him with the opportunity, as in a scene when a straightforward-seeming hit on a mouthy pornographer (James Franco) develops multiple complications. The director doesn’t seem to realize: Grim does not equal profound.
And this movie is a good deal shallower than it thinks it is. Richard’s outsider status as a Polish-American who can’t advance in a family business dominated by Italian-Americans is no more than a plot convenience. The movie never squares Richard’s insistence on a proper Catholic upbringing for his daughters with his profession or with the scene in which he taunts a victim for praying to God in the face of death. His cold, logical way of killing grows wearying; there’s a reason why psychopaths don’t generally make good main characters in stories. Richard’s romance with Deborah and his protectiveness toward his family aren’t enough to humanize him, and they don’t chime in any way with his line of work. The movie seems to think it’s breaking ground in presenting the same person as family man and mass murderer, as if people didn’t withhold things (albeit less earth-shattering things) from their spouses all the time.
The movie does have an eye-opening performance by an unrecognizable Chris Evans as a scummy, stringy-haired fellow killer who runs his operation from an ice cream truck. Liotta is focused and menacing here too — he’s been playing gangsters for so long and in so many bad movies that we forget how effective he can be. Yet it’s Shannon who holds the center of this thing easily, coiling up under the strain of concealing the truth from his family and indicating with a slight darkening of his expression that Richard has just decided to kill the person he’s talking to. For all The Iceman’s many flaws, this singular, unpredictable, and frequently scary-as-all-hell actor provides the movie’s thread of watchability. He’ll likely go in more interesting directions from here.
Starring Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder. Directed by Ariel Vromen. Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen, based on Anthony Bruno’s book and Jim Thebaut’s documentary. Rated R.