Shannon Chills as 'Iceman'

The Iceman
(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. Ariel Vromen, Writ. Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, James Franco
Chris Evans and Michael Shannon in The Iceman
Photo courtesy of eOne Films
No actor plays crazy as well as Michael Shannon plays crazy. It’s interesting to see/review The Iceman the day after seeing/reviewing Jeff Nichols’ Mud, which featured Shannon in a memorable supporting role. Shannon gave one of the best performances of the past few years in Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter, but he meets the high bar he set for his follow-up work with his menacing turn in The Iceman. Playing real-life contract killer Richard “Richie” Kuklinski, Shannon is undeniably disturbing and wholly believable as the stoic merchant of death.

The scariest thing about Shannon’s turn as Kuklinski is that he lets the killer appear as one of the most devoted fathers the screen has seen in a while. Shannon barely moves a muscle when Kuklinski disposes of New York’s trash or comes face-to-face with the barrel of a gun, and the actor allows the killer’s icy veneer to crack only when he senses that his family is in danger. This man cares little for the consequences of his crimes, yet he fully appreciates the cost that violence and crime weigh on one’s family.

The fascinating psychology of Shannon’s performance drives this otherwise conventional character study by director/co-writer Ariel Vromen. The Iceman is a chilling thriller, but its by-the-numbers rise and fall story is nothing we haven’t seen before, although it is intriguing that the film excludes the law’s perspective on Kuklinski’s crimes almost entirely. One wouldn’t know the man was being investigated until the final takedown.

Richie graduates to the role of hired goon after pedalling smut films for a New York crime lord named Roy Domeo (Ray Liotta). Roy puts a gun to Richie’s head and lets him decide whether to kill or to be killed. Richie, without breaking a sweat, shoots a homeless man in broad daylight simply to prove his talents. It’s not his first kill in the film, however, as Vromen reveals Richie’s innate mania from the outset of the film.

Richie’s string of quick, professional hits eventually earns him the notorious tabloid name “The Iceman.” The name notes nothing in regards to Richie’s chilly stoicism since the papers know nothing of his identity. Rather, the alias comes via Richie’s method for disposing bodies with his partner in crime Mr. Freezy (played by an unrecognizable Chris Evans), who drives an ice cream truck and keeps the bodies in a freezer so that the authorities can’t identify the time of death after he hacks the remains into pieces and scatters them like snowflakes. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, though, since Richie’s a cold-blooded killer in the purest sense.

He only melts in the presence of his family. Married to Deborah (a strong Winona Ryder), who is easily fooled by Richie’s excuses so long as the money keeps rolling in, and the father of two girls (McKaley Miller and Megan Sherrill), Richie is wholly devoted to his family. He’s actually a pretty good father if one can get past the means he uses to provide.

The most riveting sequence of the film is a tightly cut car chase in which Richie puts his family in the line of fire in with a moment of sociopathic road rage. A mere rear-ending leads Richie to stare down an angry driver with his imposing gait, but the driver flings a misguided cuss at Deb, which leads Richie to take the family into a white-knuckle joyride into oncoming traffic. Car chases are far more suspenseful when they take place in the days before seatbelts.

Even the momentary psychosis, however, doesn’t lead Deb to look at her usually composed husband in a new light. The Iceman, like Norman Bates, seems too gentle to hurt a fly as he plays with his girls and brings home the bacon. He’s an exemplary family man, a gentle man, as Shannon plays Richie so convincingly that one can see how easily Deb was fooled by her husband’s pleasant façade.

The Iceman nevertheless delivers an unnerving tale in spite of its familiarity. Vromen offers a dark, classically composed biopic filled with grisly deeds and seedy characters, which include a strong supporting cast and cameos by the likes of James Franco and Stephen Dorff. The performances keep The Iceman consistently engaging. The Iceman is Shannon’s show from first frame to last, and he’s an absolutely terrifying presence.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Iceman is currently playing in Toronto at The Varsity.