‘The Iceman’ creates a chilling portrait of a natural-born killer
BY MIKE THOMAS firstname.lastname@example.org May 16, 2013 6:52PM
“The Iceman” (starring Michael Shannon) follows the real-life saga of a onetime altar boy turned professional assassin.
‘THE ICEMAN’ ★★★½
Richard Kuklinski Michael Shannon
Deborah Winona Ryder
Mr. Freezy Chris Evans
Roy Demeo Ray Liotta
Josh Rosenthal David Schwimmer
Marty Freeman James Franco
Joey Stephen Dorff
Millennium Entertainment presents a film directed by Ariel Vromen. Written by Morgan Land and Vromen, based on the book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” by Anthony Bruno. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, pervasive language, and some sexual content). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Cinemas.
Updated: June 18, 2013 6:50AM
If ever there was a movie role perfectly suited to Michael Shannon’s unique brand of creepy indifference and icy rage, it’s that of real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”
“Most people I talk to don’t have anything to say,” Kuklinski says early on during a first date with his soon-to-be-wife Deborah (a sweet and gullible Jersey girl well-played by Winona Ryder). Because most of those people, he fails to reveal, are either frantically begging for their lives or don’t know what hit them.
Kuklinski, a former altar boy who died at age 70 in 2006, is said to have carried out more than 100 hits (possibly double that) during his notorious career as a mob murderer for hire, with links to several East Coast families. “The Iceman” nickname denotes his latter-day practice of freezing victims’ bodies before dumping them months later in order to throw off investigators.
“By now you know what I liked most was the hunt, the challenge of what the thing was,” Kuklinski says in Philip Carlo’s biography “The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer.” “The killing for me was secondary. I got no rise as such out of it …for the most part. But the figuring it out, the challenge — the stalking and doing it right, successfully — that excited me a lot. The greater the odds against me, the more juice I got out of it.”
Anger-filled from the start, stemming from an abusive childhood (of which we’re given brief glimpses in flashback), Kuklinski tells Deborah that he dubs animated films for Disney. In fact, he dubs underground porno flicks for shady types and isn’t above slitting the throat of anyone who crosses — or merely insults — him. It’s merely the first of many lies he tells her in what becomes an almost comical (in the tragic sense) ongoing attempt to maintain strict compartmentalization between his personal and professional lives.
One moment, he’s watching his daughters skate at a roller rink or toasting his oldest at her 16th birthday party, the next he’s choking out some dude on a rooftop or pumping slugs into another man’s chest. Other methods of extinguishment include explosives and cyanide. Amusingly, for all the ice water in his veins and his sneering at the very idea of a merciful God, Kuklinski works by a moral code of sorts: He kills only men, never women or children. So admirable.
At home, though, everything’s always just fine. Even if Kuklinski’s pained and forced smiles (those familiar with any of the Chicago theater stalwart’s work, particularly on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” know he does pained and forced especially well) shouldn’t be the least bit convincing even to someone as oblivious and self-delusional as Deborah.
For a long while, thanks to her frequent and dumbfounding tendency to believe — or at least not to question — the avalanche of b.s. that tumbles out of her emotionally stunted but obviously loving husband’s mouth, Kuklinski is successful. He’s got a solid marriage, two lovely, thriving daughters in Catholic school, a nice house in the Jersey suburbs, two cars (including his own hitmobile, a Lincoln Continental) and all the money he needs. Cash, mostly. Because guys who play the market smartly, as he claims to do, earn a great living.
In addition to Ryder, Shannon’s other co-stars only bolster his stellar performance. Ray Liotta is back in near-“Goodfellas” form with his menacing portrayal of mobster Roy Demeo. “F-----’ guy’s cold as ice,” he says admiringly, after Kuklinski remains rock-steady when a gun is held to his head. As Demeo’s best boy, mob wannabe Josh Rosenthal, Lookingglass Theatre Company co-founder and erstwhile “Friends” star David Schwimmer rocks an uber-cheesy mustache avec ponytail. So sexy. Even James Franco has a short but memorable cameo as one of Kuklinski’s marks.
Next up for Shannon in an ongoing big-screen showcase that kicked off in April with a homicide-free turn in “Mud”: the part of vengeful Superman nemesis General Zod in “Man of Steel” (opening June 14). Don’t expect much grinning from that dude, either — of the pained variety or otherwise.