Michael Shannon has basically rewritten the book on how to portray dark, volatile men in film with his unerring way of channeling rage and repression. It was never more chilling, or more fully realized, than his turn as a family man both paralyzed and driven by his apocalyptic fears in 2011’s “Take Shelter.”
But even Shannon has his work cut out for him in the new crime drama “The Iceman.”
Based on the true story of convicted killer Richard Kuklinski, who was arrested in 1986 and later claimed to have carried out 100 hits for the mob over a 20-year span, it seemed to be right in Shannon’s wheelhouse. And certainly we’ve shown a continuing fascination for these waters — from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in 1991 to Showtime’s dying “Dexter” to Fox’s rising “The Following,” which I’ve definitely been following.
In this case, the New York-area murders are not what make Kuklinski so fascinating. It was the duality of his life. At home, he was a devoted husband and father. At work, he killed for hire without breaking a sweat. Thus the tabloids would dub him the Iceman. I guess you could say Kuklinski blew hot and cold …
The movie, however, is mostly cold. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone who could do more to bring Kuklinski to life than Shannon, there is a fundamental flaw in the character — and I don’t mean that nasty tendency to off mob types.
Directed by Ariel Vromen, the movie starts on a lighter note, though with its very noir-ish color palette even light seems dark. Deborah (Winona Ryder), a pretty waitress in a modest diner, catches Kuklinski’s eye. In the scene where the flame between them is first lit, the tightly wound Polish dude’s insistence about everything is pretty intense. But Deborah sees in him a way out of a dreary existence, and presumably love. She will spend the next two decades only seeing the husband as provider, and at least one scene suggests, a very good lover.
To be fair, when the couple met, the contract-killing jobs hadn’t come along. He was already working for the mob, but as a flunky dubbing sound for porn movies — or, as he tells Deborah — animation films.
Local mob boss Roy Demeo — Ray Liotta, who has his own extensive portfolio of unhinged angry men — decides for reasons that are never clear to “squeeze his shoes,” as the brilliant David Foster Wallace once put it. When he tries to work Kuklinski over for finishing some reels late and notices that despite all the guns flailing in his face, Kuklinski doesn’t flinch, Demeo sees a guy with potential. After passing a crude test and meeting the requirements about not having a family — at that point he doesn’t — Kuklinski starts doing jobs for Demeo and bodies start piling up.
Back on the now-hidden home front, he and Deborah have married, started a family and moved to the burbs. She thinks a new Wall Street job is paying the bills. They host dinner parties, ferry the kids to private schools and basically seem like a normal couple.
Except in Shannon’s hands, Kuklinski never quite passes into normal zone. You feel the menace in every move from the dead eyes — how does he do that? — to the way his arms hang at his sides, as if he is willing them not to strangle whatever irritant is in front of him.
“The Iceman’s” problem rests instead with the script, which the director wrote with Morgan Land, his collaborator on the “Rx” screenplay. It never gets underneath Kuklinski’s skin in a way that illuminates the psychosis.
There are flashbacks to the young Kuklinski brothers being beaten by their drunk father, and a face-off between the brothers that involves some serious name-calling. But all the ways in which the two sides of the man should be exposed remain, for the most part, under lock and key.
Ironically, the filmmakers do better at fleshing out some of the smaller characters. David Schwimmer is excellent, and unrecognizable, as Josh Rosenthal. He’s a dim bulb in Demeo’s organization and the one guy who keeps messing up and getting away with it. Schwimmer dumbs it down just right.
Meanwhile, James Franco cruises through long enough to crack up nicely. And Chris Evans settles in about midway through the movie as Mr. Freezy, a contract-killing competitor who works out of an ice cream truck. His M.O. is to sell cones to kids and store bodies in the freezer.
Mr. Freezy and Kuklinski soon join forces and with Evans — who has a winning way with this role — the ice around Shannon’s character begins to melt. Their way of talking shop — preferred death and disposal methods — offer some clues about the mind of a killer. But it’s only a glimpse. The great failing of “The Iceman” is not in giving us a monster, but in not making us care.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark Theatre, West L.A.