A biopic of Richard Kuklinski (Shannon), a tormented psychopath who, employed as a contract killer by the New Jersey Mafia, murdered as many as 200 people over several decades — all unbeknownst to his loving wife (Ryder) and daughters.
With performances of increasingly bug-eyed intensity, an affably bemused public exterior and a knack for loopy internet memes — check out his sorority letter video, if you haven’t already — Michael Shannon is swiftly becoming the new Christopher Walken. That’s no bad thing. It’s always thrilling when the industry finally gets wise to a charismatic, not-quite-handsome actor, allowing him to flaunt his abilities outside the confines of supporting roles. But if Take Shelter was a richer leading showcase than any Walken was handed in his prime, The Iceman is Shannon’s own King Of New York: Ariel Vromen’s tough-minded true-crime thriller locates chilling reserves of violence in the wild, unblinking gaze that has become the actor’s trademark.
Shannon’s aggressive turn brings vigour to an otherwise familiar portrait of the East Coast underworld: its grey-skied New Jersey gangland predates that of The Sopranos by a good few decades, but you won’t have trouble recognising it. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer so alarmingly prolific that, by the time he was arrested in 1986, his ballpark body count ranged from 100 to 250; at times in this bleakly bloody film, you could be forgiven for thinking Vromen is out to top that.
The film cannily introduces Kuklinski on his first date with skittish future wife Deborah (an affecting Winona Ryder), allowing Shannon to establish him as an otherwise shy, socially awkward figure whose inner psycho emerges with greater frequency when he comes into the employ of Mafia lord Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) in the ’60s, while his family remains nervously unaware of Daddy’s doings.
This barely tenable tension between the domestic and professional spheres is where the film excels; Kuklinski’s criminal life is less evocatively detailed and therefore less compelling, even with pop-up appearances from David Schwimmer, Chris Evans and James Franco as various lowlifes. The star cameos seem somewhat cowed by Shannon’s hair-trigger performance — but so does the film, which all too often falls back on stock biopic structures. Shannon’s standing tall, but he needs more films that can stand up to him.
This solemn, blood-soaked thriller lacks the dynamism of its star, but is an impressive showcase for him nonetheless: it’s as hard to look away from Shannon’s performance as it is to look directly at it.
Reviewed by Guy Lodge