Chronicling the complicated balance between work and family that prolific real life contract killer Richard Kuklinski carried on for decades, The Iceman paralyzes the audience purely with Michael Shannon’s unrelentingly intense performance. When cloaked in silence his unnerving stare speaks volumes more than any of the periphery characters who happen to drift in and out of scenes around him. He is a force of terror and subtle affection to behold. While Kuklinski claimed to have murdered over 100 people, the far more remarkable part of his story is how vehemently he insulated his family from his criminal underworld and true nature. Director Ariel Vromen conveys here how he didn’t use them as a cover but as emotional security against the monstrous people he was in business with, people seemingly less monstrous than himself. Iceman details the routinely abominable exploits of a killer who built a wholesome family life a top of a mountain of blood soaked deceptions.
Shannon holds the whole of the film together and doesn’t lose his grip unless you look away. While it could benefit from delving into his relationship with his family more than his underworld dealings, the concentrated tension from the killer’s eye movement and abrupt violence doesn’t let the viewer disengage. The role of Richard Kuklinski seems tailor made for Shannon, an actor who on the screen and stage has proven his absolute expertise with actualizing individuals verging on complete mental instability. In Bug, Take Shelter and Revolutionary Road he created masterfully manic characters whose sense of displeasure, unease and downright anger with life threaten to boil over at any moment. Here too Shannon possesses a quiet but on the edge air of fiery power. If provoked or leaned on for loyalty, he seems capable of absolutely anything. With his slicked back hair, remorseless stare and stiff demeanor- Shannon communicates an aptitude for destruction that is exacting and all consuming except when it comes to his family. In a quick flurry he deposes of people with machine like skill and a temperate expression. At home he does everything to be the most attentive and present father possible. Over time it is only his wife that notices he holds back certain parts of himself and doesn’t want to give up anything about his past. Winona Ryder plays his sweetheart Deborah, who seeks to affirm the best about Kuklinski. Her willful ignorance and minimal prying into his escalating lies is believable- no one wants to acknowledge their partner would be able to inflict such tremendous pain without regret. Ryder’s face carries the fear of someone who doesn’t want their idyllic world to come crashing down but still wishes to be close to whatever storm is raging inside her loved one.
The film doesn’t want us to know what exactly happened to him to make him this combustible. This is not a man that can be fully known. Without the mystique, the suspense would disintegrate. This tactic works well as more cynical filmgoers can quickly tire of lengthy, intrusive flashbacks that don’t add anything which couldn’t quickly be deduced from a few well placed moments. It’s not necessary to know Kuklinski’s entire background to understand that past sufferings at the hands of his father almost certainly led up to his lack of mercy in the business of killing. We don’t know why the fuse was lit, we just know that it’s going to go off. That he still has the capacity to feel for his family is one of the most alluring aspects of the film. It disturbs and intrigues that he can shut off his loyalty and empathy like a tap. Only when his wife and daughters are threatened does he lose his control and become unpredictable.
The film falters a bit when we’re left alone with Liotta and Schwimmer. Ray Liotta plays a familiar mob boss archetype named Roy Demeo who hires Kuklinski on to be at his beck and call. David Schwimmer is one of Demeo’s right hand men with a tendency to overstep set mafia boundaries. The full emotional impact of the bond between them is lost to us. We haven’t seen Demeo raise Schwimmer’s Rosenthal from a poor lost boy of the street up to his adopted heir, so their mutual and inevitable betrayal of each other feels a bit off the mark. This is time we should have spent with Kuklinski instead. Liotta is restrained, frightening and a true professional in scenes with Shannon. Even so, when Chris Evans (The Avengers, Sunshine) crashes his unkempt assassin “Mr. Freezy” into the film, it comes as welcome comic relief. His sardonic and quippy spasticness acts to balance out the tremendous onscreen severity of Shannon. Stephen Dorff (Blade, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere) also turns in a tight appearance as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother, the only remnant of his childhood left to remind him of what he doesn’t want to become or be known for. The protectiveness he affords his family life might be the only thing saving him from sliding all the way into indiscriminate killing and darkness.
Although we witness Kulklinski in fully amoral mode and see him mire the love for his family with lies, Vromen’s murderer dares us to feel strangely emotionally aligned to his sense of familial devotion. He is ultimately painted as a deeply afflicted soul that needs a true home to feel just a bit human amongst the brutal death he dispenses. With each scene barbed with potential violence just beneath the surface, Shannon’s thousand mile stare will keep you guessing as to his degree of depravity and what finally may be the tipping point to his precarious house of cards.