Directed by Ariel Vroman
Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta
Playing at Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine
“The Iceman” is awash in grimness, a relentlessly downbeat mob movie with a terrifying protagonist. But one shouldn’t expect sunshine and roses from a biopic starring Michael Shannon as notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who claimed to have murdered hundreds of people over the course of some 40 years.
Ariel Vroman’s film operates on different terrain than the familiar stylized path trod by mafia movies of the past. There’s no glamorizing Kuklinski’s sad existence, no gussying things up with cinematic flourishes. Even a disco club murder sequence set to “Heart of Glass” is rendered with a visceral immediacy that makes it about the events at hand rather than some sort of ’70s music video travelogue of ridiculous outfits and cornball dance moves.
Without excusing the protagonist, the movie suffers along with him, acknowledging the blackness of his being and the fact that he seems to have turned to murder in part because of a lack of options.
Unfolding between 1964 and 1986, under gray New Jersey skies and across New York’s mean streets, the flick chronicles Kuklinski’s involvement with Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) and the Gambino family, among others. It contrasts his brutal killings with his suburban family life in the Garden State, where he and oblivious wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) raise two daughters.
Vroman doesn’t hold back when it comes to the murders; the camera lingers as people are shot, strangled and stabbed. Kuklinski had killing down to a science and the movie shows you his sprees in clinical detail.
But the film is at its best when it navigates the contradiction at the heart of this man, generating considerable interest and tension as it parallels his mundane home life with his horrifying profession.
Shannon affects a clinical cool from start to finish, maintaining Kuklinski’s composure even as his worlds begin to collide. The character is at once empathetic and inhuman, capable of transitioning from loving father to cold-hearted killer in an instant. You won’t like him, but you just might begin to understand him. And, in the end, that’s what acting is all about.