Richard Kuklinski, the real-life contract killer whose grim life story is told in Israeli director Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, redefines the category of “unlikable protagonist.” As played by a scarily intense Michael Shannon, Kuklinski is neither a dashing anti-hero nor a suffering, divided man. He’s a pragmatically minded sociopath with neither remorse for, nor interest in, the 100-plus murders-for-hire he committed before going to prison for life in 1986 (he would die there 20 years later). This film has its work cut out for it, trying to make us care about a creature as morally repugnant as Richie Kuklinski. But Shannon inhabits this character so completely that by the end of this hard-to-watch, hard-to-look-away-from movie you feel you can, if not understand Richie, at least wish he had found some redemption in life.
We meet the miserable bastard in 1964 in Jersey City, N.J. where he’s courting his wife-to-be, Deborah (Winona Ryder). On one of their first dates, Richie ducks into the alley of a pool hall to casually slit the throat of a guy who crossed him earlier in the evening, establishing for the audience just who we’re dealing with here. Richie has a job bootlegging porno movies for the crime boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), but when Roy has occasion to notice his employee’s skill at cold-blooded murder, he hires Richie as an all-purpose hit man.
The story stretches over the course of decades, as the Kuklinskis have two daughters and settle into a comfortable life in the New Jersey suburbs. Incredibly, Richie manages to keep his day job a secret all that time, passing himself off as a “currency trader” to explain the sudden influxes of cash. As time goes by he falls in with other criminal accomplices, most notably an eccentric freelance hitman (an excellent, bearded-beyond-recognition Chris Evans) who operates out of an ice cream truck that doubles as dead-body storage. But Roy isn’t happy about his former employee straying to greener criminal pastures—and these guys don’t inhabit a moral world where threatening to take out someone’s entire family is anywhere near over the line.
Structurally, The Iceman’s story resembles Goodfellas’ as it follows the ascent of a young gangster up the ranks. But Richie Kuklinski remains more of an enigmatic outsider than Goodfellas’ Henry Hill (as a “Polack,” Richie can never be accepted to the inner circle of Italian mobsters, an isolation that suits him just fine). In tone, this dour, cold film is a world away from the manic, lavish spectacle of Scorsese’s true-crime-based gangster epic.
The Iceman could have benefited from some modulation in its middle hour—there are a few too many unvarying, context-free scenes of Richie doing away with people in horrible, heartless ways. (James Franco has a cameo as one of his more luckless victims—a funny face to see in this context, though the moment isn’t at all played for laughs.) But the dulling effect of these steady bursts of violence wears off during the consistently fine scenes between Richie and the family he treats with alternating brutality and tenderness. Winona Ryder isn’t perfectly cast as the duped wife—she’s too aristocratically elegant to quite channel a lower-middle-class Catholic girl from Jersey—but she and Shannon establish a convincing connection as two people who love each other while not understanding the first thing about one another. Ryder’s set face in the final courtroom scene, as Debbie’s loyalty to Richie clashes with her horror at what he’s done, made me excited to have Winona back as something other than Spock’s mother in the Star Trek reboot.
But it’s Michael Shannon who lifts The Iceman above the run of sociopath character portraits. What did we do in the days before Michael Shannon was everywhere? In the space of a few weeks this spring you can see him as a contract killer in this movie; a comic-relief, oyster-diving uncle in the recently released Mud; Superman’s arch-enemy Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel; and perhaps most delectably, a crazed alpha girl chewing out her Delta Gamma sisters, in his epic reading of that real-life sorority letter. In interviews, Shannon is a plain-spoken, sometimes bluntly funny live wire—there’s a sense that his interlocutor can’t quite get to the bottom of him, an opacity he shares with his best characters. I’ve been unable to tear my eyes away from Shannon’s unsettling jump-off-the-screen gaze since noticing him for the first time as a disturbed war veteran in William Friedkin’s psychological thriller Bug (a role he created onstage during a long career as a respected Chicago stage actor). Even at a moment when he’s ubiquitous onscreen, Shannon, far from seeming overexposed, feels like a performer whose depths we’ve barely begun to plumb. If you can tolerate the (at times oppressive) moral bleakness of The Iceman, it’s a chance to watch Shannon spelunk down to some of the darkest places he’s visited yet.