“The Iceman,” directed and co-written by Ariel Vromen, is a cold, calculating, viscerally effective portrait of a contract killer. It’s as if one of the sideline characters from “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather” starred in his own spinoff.
Michael Shannon gives a chillingly convincing performance as Richard Kuklinski, a real-life mafia assassin. The initial get-to-know-you scene with Kuklinski shows him on a first date in a Jersey City diner. He’s the strong, silent type, but his trick of hanging a spoon on his nose gets a laugh from Debbie (Winona Ryder). She accepts his claim that he dubs Disney cartoons for a living, though his voice is a flat cement-mixer rumble. A minute later we see him in the alley with a guy who made a rude remark, slitting his throat with unnerving, efficient nonchalance.
Debbie, none the wiser, marries her doting “Richie.” From 1964 to 1986, he shot, knifed, strangled, poisoned and dismembered more than 100 people, giving his wife and two daughters a comfortable life of private schools, broad lawns and back-yard barbecues while managing to keep them unaware of his profession.
Brutish intensity and searing intelligence are not necessarily incompatible qualities in an actor, but rarely do they intersect as thrillingly as they do in Shannon’s performances. He plays volatile characters often and well. Recall him as the menacing New York detective in “Premium Rush,” the cracked Prohibition agent in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” or the darkly jittery mental patient/truth teller in “Revolutionary Road,” where two intense scenes earned him a 2009 Oscar nomination.
Here Shannon plays the opposite type, a dispassionate slab of muscle who executes his targets with minimal fuss. “Somebody wants somebody dead, who am I to question it?” he shrugs.
In Kuklinski’s world, stillness and calm erupt into shocking violence. His carefully compartmentalized life is a series of dualities. He’s Polish-American, excluded from the inner ranks of the Italian mob that employs him. He’s a lone wolf who strikes up a partnership with another freelance assassin (an unrecognizable and grimly funny Chris Evans, shedding his superhero spandex for unkempt hair and mutton chops) whose cover is driving a Mr. Freezy ice cream truck. He’s a remorseless murderer yet a good provider. He even has his own ethical guidelines, sparing women and children, which makes for loose ends when they are witnesses.
Vromen and his fine cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, re-create the gritty low-tech feel of crime thrillers of the 1970s. The color scheme is heavy with the era’s unlovely earth tones. Bulky old cars sway on their shock absorbers when they pursue one another. Shannon’s ’70s wardrobe and ever-morphing facial hair are a sight to behold. As the roly-poly right-hand man of Ray Liotta’s mob underboss, David Schwimmer is transformed with track suits, a lank ponytail and pornstar ’stache. In one scene, Kuklinski pursues a target in a disco where the murky, swirling lights and Blondie dance beat are spot-on. The script is persuasive, too, weaving an elaborate web of shifting alliances and unpredictable betrayals.
Still, it’s Shannon and his co-stars that make the film an outstanding example of its genre. You see slight tectonic shifts in Shannon’s overlarge features as Kuklinski tries to reconcile the jigsaw pieces of his life. Before executing a sniveling pornographer played by James Franco, he taunts, “Think God’s gonna stop me? Tell him to come down and stop me.” For a moment you feel that the other side of him, the bit that feels pride for sending his daughters to parochial school, half-expects a miracle. Shannon’s authority as the lead is so irresistible that for long stretches of the film I switched off my disapproval of the character and just went with the blood-red flow.