For bracing proof that a) Michael Shannon can portray the coldest of killers, while b) complicating and enlivening a potentially monochromatic slab of nastiness, check out Shannon as Richard Kuklinski in director and co-writer Ariel Vromen's "The Iceman." In our mobbed-up popular culture, Kuklinski was destined for feature film treatment. He was a real-life New Jersey whack expert with an estimated 100 victims. He lived behind the facade of a stable marriage and a Normal, Happy Family, but his resume included enough grisly doings for an entire season of "The Sopranos."
At 6-foot-4 and north of 250 pounds, the Polish-American Kuklinski cut an imposing figure. So does Shannon; with that frame and those features, he needn't waste any time indicating, externally, the usual behavioral tics and traits we associate with heartless murderers. What's good about "The Iceman" has everything to do with expectations being subverted, despite the bloody familiarity of the terrain. Just when you think you've seen enough of these wiseguys, along comes a story like Kuklinski's, and an actor like Shannon.
The movie, like every other nondocumentary in existence, presents one version of facts, events and its subject. We meet Kuklinski and his future wife, Deborah, (Winona Ryder) on a date in Jersey City in 1964. Kuklinski has already seen and caused his share of vicious behavior, but we don't know that yet: The man we glimpse is quiet but driven. "He seemed so … convinced," Deborah later says of his romantic persistence.
When they meet, he works in a particular niche of the film business. He tells her he's dubbing cartoons; in reality he's shipping porno films to the mob. Ray Liotta plays his overlord, and eventually his direct employer, and it's heartening to see the actor (having played one too many of these thugs) ease into a more seasoned, less volatile gangster role.
Kuklinski goes to work for Liotta's character, "collecting debts," "sending messages" and killing all sorts of people. No women and children: that's the contract killer's credo. Yet we hear at one point in "The Iceman," in a tense scene when Kuklinski visits his child-murdering brother in prison, that Richard started young in taking innocent lives.
With co-writer Morgan Land, Israeli-born director Vromen adapted his script from Anthony Bruno's nonfiction account, and from the documentary "The Iceman Tapes." The movie goes easy on Kuklinski, playing down the abuse he suffered as a child, the violence in his marriage. I suppose you can't win with a subject such as this one: If you give an audience the "real" guy, warts and all, you risk dramatic monotony.
So it's a bit squishy at the center. But the film is sleek, purposeful and extremely well acted, with Bobby Bukowski's cinematography lending the cruddy-looking '60s and '70s interiors just the right brackish tone. In his scenes with his wife and daughters, rooted to whatever living room chair he happens to be sitting in at the time, Shannon's Kuklinski gazes with the eyes of a half-content, half-numb dead man. He's the embodiment of the question asked in the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime": How did I get here?
Besides Liotta, the cast includes astute supporting turns from David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, Robert Davi, James "Never Enough Sleazebags For This Career!" Franco and Stephen Dorff, memorable as Kuklinski's incarcerated brother. Various parties have tried to bring Kuklinski's life to the screen for a generation now. While one too many edges of that life have been dulled in Vromen's film, there's not a dull or cliched or ineffective moment in the performance at its sad, dark heart.
'Iceman' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:45