Michael Shannon is an overpowering actor, and in The Iceman, the best that he can do is wrestle the movie around him to a stalemate. Ariel Vromen’s film is a sort of biographical horror show about the New Jersey-based contract killer Richard Kuklinski, whose professional predations over a 40-year period are the stuff of police blotter legend. Glowering threateningly from underneath a series of period-appropriate mustaches and beards, Shannon heroically attempts to give a nuanced, naturalistic performance in a movie that’s been production-designed within an inch of its life.
Opening with a portentous meet-cute in which Richard makes puppy eyes at his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) in a diner, The Iceman wastes little time in establishing his (literally) cutthroat credentials. In a post-Second World War America, Richard just wants to get ahead, and after securing an entry-level position as the trigger man for a scummy local crime boss (Ray Liotta) he starts to climb the underworld ladder one bloody rung at a time. The dichotomy between Richard’s smiley domestic life and his increasingly grotesque job performance is milked for all kinds of obvious, high-handed irony: In order to bring home the bacon, he’s got to keep going to the slaughterhouse.
In truth, The Sopranos did this Secret Life of the Suburban Male stuff a lot better.
Vromen’s other obvious model here is the true-crime picaresque of Goodfellas (a debt exacerbated by the presence of Liotta), but he can’t muster any of the kinetic kick of Martin Scorsese’s camera direction or pop soundtrack cues. Instead, The Iceman plods through the decades and corpse disposals with dreary, single-minded determination. The one-murder-after-another rhythm grows tired, and if it’s supposed to illustrate a numbness that overtakes Richard, it’s equally true of the filmmakers. When the movie does digress from its gory trajectory, the results are facile at best. We’re given glimpses of Richard’s abusive childhood, as if they might credibly explain how a man could kill dozens of people.
Shannon has a few superb moments, including a scene opposite a charged-up James Franco as a target whose desperate pleas for clemency seem to spark some fleeting empathy. But where movies like Bug and Take Shelter showcased the actor’s elastic talents – his ability to stretch from madness to vulnerability without severing the threads of his performances – The Iceman only has him playing one or two major chords for the better part of two hours. And yet the actors around him are all playing such predictable caricatures – starting with Liotta, whose special-guest-reptile act is starting to wear thin – that Shannon’s focused, implosive acting feels almost like an act of resistance. “I dub cartoons,” says Richard when Deborah first asks him what he does for a living. He’s lying, of course, but Shannon gives the line a ring of truth, maybe because he realizes that he’s starring in one.