Based on the true story of convicted contract killer Richard Kuklinski, Ariel Vromen's "The Iceman" gives Michael Shannon the opportunity to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why he is one of the most talented performers working today.
Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) didn't intend to become a hit man for the mob. He was just a mild-mannered, blue-collar guy from Jersey City who distributed sleazy porn movies. All he wanted was to provide for his family and lead a low-key life. Kuklinski is left jobless, however, when mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) muscles in and closes Kuklinski's business. Soon enough, Kuklinski is on Demeo's payroll, carrying out numerous coldblooded killings for the boss.
By this point (the mid-1970s), Kuklinski has married his sweetheart, Deborah (Winona Ryder), and fathered two daughters. To his family and friends, he is a stand-up guy working in the financial sector, but the reality, of course, is much more terrifying and vicious.
This is one of the most intense movies I have seen in a long time, mostly due to the tour de force acting from Shannon. He is, quite simply, spellbinding. Witness his icy stare and pursed lips that let one know this is a man who means business and is not to be screwed with. Shannon's dedication to and absorption into the character is mesmerizing to behold; he completely inhabits Richard Kuklinski. The most astounding thing about his performance, however, is that he never allows it to lapse into caricature. Kuklinski was a monster, no doubt, but Shannon uncovers his humanity and it makes his characterization all the more sympathetic and powerful.
This is a movie filled with exemplary acting all around, and matching Shannon is Winona Ryder as Deborah. This is easily some of the best acting of Ryder's career. From the early scenes of Deborah's first date with Kuklinski to the later scenes of Richard and Deborah's married life, Ryder creates a woman filled with vulnerability, class and hope for a secure and comfortable life.
Ray Liotta, superb in a role that is similar to many he has played in prior movies, demonstrates why he is the number one go-to mob movie character actor. Rounding out the above-the-line talent, Chris Evans turns in an effectively slimy performance as Mr. Freezy, a sort-of freelance hit man. In a cast full of accomplished pros, it's nice to see some game cameos from the likes of James Franco and Stephen Dorff (who we don't see nearly enough of in movies these days).
Vromen keeps the movie tight and streamlined at a running time of about an hour and forty-five minutes, putting in nothing extraneous. While the picture is bookended with the familiar "jailhouse interview" framing device, the movie never feels derivative. In fact, the audience is kept riveted the entire length of the film, even through some brutal (though never exploitative) sequences.
This movie is definitely not for everyone and can be quite violent, as is appropriate for the subject matter. That said, the exquisite performances from the entire cast (Shannon in particular) and Vronen's confident direction make "The Iceman" one of the best films so far this year.