In Ariel Vromen's fact-based crime drama "The Iceman," Chicago actor Michael Shannon takes his straightforward role as a mob hitman and transforms it into a powerful, carefully balanced high-wire act.
He must instill in his character -- New Jersey assassin Richard Kuklinski -- a callous disregard for human life, a cold brutality that reveals no humanity in his heart or soul while simultaneously supplying his character with qualities we can relate to, some small spark of understanding that will enable us, the moviegoers, to hang out with this killer for 93 minutes and not feel as if we're watching a dehumanized Jason Voorhees-like entity mechanically bump off one victim after another.
"The Iceman"★ ★ ★
Starring: Michael Shannon, Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, James Franco
Directed by: Ariel Vromen
Other: A Milennium Entertainment release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 93 minutes
Shannon re-creates the infamous New Jersey murderer as a modern-day Frankenstein's monster, without the stitches, an unpredictably violent creature who operates on basic instincts to survive and protect the one thing he values: his family.
The real Kuklinski confirmed that between 1948 to 1986, he killed more than 100 people, and some reports bump that number up over 250. He avoided detection by the police for years because his methods of killing greatly varied.
Kuklinski often murdered homeless people and bums on Manhattan's West Side for practice in perfecting his craft. The cops assumed the victims were killing themselves, never suspecting the attacks were the work of a serial killer.
The alarming lack of a police presence is one of the scarier elements in "The Iceman," written by Vromen and Morgan Land (based on a book by Anthony Bruno).
This drama lacks the sheer horror of John McNaughton's fact-inspired "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (with no police at all to protect the illusion of moral order in the universe) and fails to muster the gritty, stylistic flourishes of Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood."
But Shannon's haunted performance carries the unadorned, chronological narrative of "The Iceman" with riveting effect.
Early on, Shannon's killer shows us his softer side when dating his future wife, Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder), in 1964. He fumbles for a compliment before pushing out the words, "You look like a prettier version of Natalie Wood."
We also glimpse the instant violence that grips Kuklinski when he feels mocked or insulted. A pool player hurls abuse on Kuklinski during a game. In the parking lot, the future mob hit man coolly slits the man's throat and leaves him to bleed to death in his car.
Married with kids, Kuklinski takes a job bootlegging porn movies for the New Jersey mob. (He tells his wife he's dubbing Walt Disney films.) He meets mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, the go-to guy for gangsters with volatile tempers), who's impressed that Kuklinski isn't afraid of anything.
DeMeo gives him an instant test: Go kill that wino over on the street corner. Kuklinski instantly complies with cold dispassion and three bullets. (In real life, Kuklinski reportedly killed a man walking his dog as part of DeMeo's test.)
"The Iceman" follows Kuklinski's rise as DeMeo's favorite hitman, message runner and debt collector.
Meanwhile at home, Deborah never suspects what her husband really does. She thinks he's into high finance, and Ryder's portrait of a 1960s conservative Catholic wife makes this understandably plausible.
The juxtaposition between the two Kuklinskis -- loving family man and heartless hitman -- is the essence of this dramatic character study of a mentally ill man, created by a history of abuse and neglect.
"The Iceman" doesn't go much into Kuklinski's background, but a few pivotal flashbacks reveal that he and his brother (played as an adult by Stephen Dorff) were beaten and abused by their parents.
In a single sentence, we also learn that, as a boy, Kuklinski loved to torture and kill animals for sport.
In a sense, we feel sympathy for Shannon's character in the same way we sympathize with Dr. Frankenstein's creation: He can't help himself. He was made that way.
When DeMeo has to lay low, he "lays off" Kuklinski, who, like any regular guy, seeks out supplemental income. He hooks up with freelance killer Robert Pronge (played by a stringy-haired Chris Evans, looking nothing like his "Captain America" persona), who drives around Jersey in an ice cream truck. (Talk about iceman.)
Chicago's own David Schwimmer brings sleaze and slime to his role as DeMeo's foolish and self-centered protégé Josh Rosenthal.
James Franco's appearance is almost a cameo as a whimpering target whom Kuklinski allows to pray to God before killing him. (This incident is based on actual testimony from the real Kuklinski.)
Robert Davi brings his patented brand of tough-guyness to DeMeo's mob supervisor, Leo Marks.
But this movie belongs to Shannon, a remarkable actor who lifts "The Iceman" to a higher level through his raw power to engage.