"The Iceman" — directed by Ariel Vroman from a script he cowrote with Morgan Land — is based on the life of Richard Kuklinski, a hired killer who is believed to have murdered more people than any number of serial killers. In a 1992 HBO special with the same title, Kuklinski, when asked for a specific figure, says, "I don't know. Over a hundred, I think."
In this fictionalized version — which wisely tampers with facts and dates — we meet Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) as he woos and wins Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder). He seems awkward and strange, but he also displays a touch of childlike charm. When the couple have their first child, he's working in a presumably minimum-wage job in a film distribution/dubbing office. It's actually a porn-film outfit run by mobsters. One day, when Kuklinski gives lip to the owner (Ray Liotta, whose mere presence brings echoes of "Goodfellas"), he's fired — and then rehired as a hitman shortly thereafter. With a family to support, it's a hard gig to turn down.
In the film, the central enigma in Kuklinski's life is that his violent, morally inexcusable actions are fueled by his devotion to his family. The real Kuklinski grew up in a miserable home: His father beat one of his brothers to death and also beat his mother; his mother in turn beat him; and his other brother spent most of his life in prison for raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Much of this detail is omitted by the filmmakers. More striking yet is their failure to mention that Kuklinski frequently beat Deborah, which would have weakened their emphasis on his devotion/obsession to his family.
The film succeeds largely on Shannon's performance. For sheer creepiness, it's hard to compete with a real-life monster like Kuklinski, but Shannon is the man for the job. Because of his visage — he looks like a better looking version of Richard Kiel (who played Jaws in a pair of '70s James Bond films) — his roles to date have been largely heavies ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), lunatics ("Bug"), and characters who might be lunatics ("Take Shelter," for which he won more awards than you can count). Given the very funny performance he gave in "Premium Rush," he deserves a broader range of work.
But he's so perfect as Kuklinski that it's hard to imagine who else could have played this role; 20 years ago, Liotta would have been the obvious candidate. Shannon's ability to make us see his internal conflicts while trying to appear impassive is a crucial element. I know: that's why they call it "acting." He also makes us feel empathy without diluting the character's viciousness.
The rest of the cast fares well. In addition to Ryder and Liotta, there's Robert Davi, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer and Stephen Dorff (all with makeup and/or facial hair that makes them almost unrecognizable); and James Franco, whose one scene lasts all of two minutes.
But throughout it's Shannon's fearsome presence that keeps us watching, even through the more violent moments.
"The Iceman" opens this week at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).