The Iceman, a gangster biopic that stars the amazing Michael Shannon, came and went earlier this year. It got respectful, if not rave, reviews but it certainly didn’t get the attention that it deserved. That’s a shame because The Iceman is one of the best films of 2013.
Directed by Ariel Vromen, The Iceman tells the true story of Richard Kuklinski (Shannon), a Mafia contract killer who claimed to have killed anywhere from 100 to 250 people over the course of his three decade long career. At the same time that Kuklinski was murdering the equivalent of the population of a small rural community, he was also living a double life as a suburban family man. When he was finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor his daughters had any idea that he was a killer. After being sentence to spend the rest of his life in prison, Kuklinski gave countless interviews (and was the subject of a creepy documentary that still shows up on HBO occasionally) until he finally died, under mysterious circumstances, in 2006.
When Kuklinski is first seen in the Iceman, it’s the 50s and he’s flirting with Deborah (Winona Ryder). When another man speaks to Deborah, Kuklinski reacts by casually following the man outside and killing him. Kuklisnki goes on to marry Deborah before he eventually meets crime boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) and is recruited to kill for a living. It’s a good arrangement for Kuklinski because it turns out that killing is the only thing he’s good at and his marriage to Deborah allows him to tell himself that he’s just a blue collar family man doing his job.
As opposed to other cinematic sociopaths, Kuklinski is no glib charmer. Instead, as the film repeatedly demonstrates, he is a remorseless killer who feels neither shame nor joy as a result of his actions. Much like the character played by Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Kuklinski is not defined by what hides behind his blank expression but by the fact that there’s nothing to hide because nothing’s there.
Even Kuklinski’s love for his family is, in one particularly harrowing sequence, revealed to be hollow and false. As becomes apparent, the only thing that keeps Kuklinski from taking out his homicidal impulses on his family is the fact that there’s a never-ending supply of Mafia lowlifes who need to be executed. Kuklinski and his associates exist in a moral vacuum and friendship and family life are ultimately a disguise as opposed to a reality.
If this makes The Iceman sound like a rather dark film, that’s because it is. And yet, the film is never less than watchable. It helps that Ariel Vromen gets excellent performances from his entire cast. Both Winona Ryder and Ray Liotta are perfectly cast. Robert Davi shows up as a mobster and James Franco has a very effective cameo as one of Kuklinski’s victims. Stephen Dorff plays Kuklinski’s brother, who is serving a life sentence because, unlike his brother, he never figured out a way to turn his dark impulses into a business. Best of all, Chris Evans plays an especially sleazy hitman who drives an ice cream truck in his spare time. When Evans first shows up, he seems almost like a comical character but, as the film progresses, Evans’ performance becomes more and more sinister until eventually, he’s calmly talking about killing his own children. For those of us who have been conditioned to associate Chris Evans with the clean-cut Capt. America, it’s a revelation of a performance.
However, the film is truly dominated by Michael Shannon. It’s not easy to make an empty character compelling but Shannon does so. Shannon is such a charismatic performer that you want to like him when he first appears on screen. As The Iceman plays out, you keep finding yourself hoping that Kuklinski will reveal some shred of human decency. You find yourself studying Shannon’s rigid stance and cold eyes and hoping to find some evidence of compassion. The genius of Shannon’s performance is that he makes Richard Kuklinski a fascinating character even as he slowly reveals just how hollow he actually is.
Is Michael Shannon the best American actor working today? That was a question that filmgoers were forced to ask after seeing Shannon’s performance in 2011’s Take Shelter. It’s a question that they should ask again after seeing his performance in The Iceman. Without Shannon’s performance, The Iceman would be just another gangster film. However, thanks to Shannon, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.