A finely chiseled thriller that reflects the cold-blooded efficiency of its murderous subject in every frame and detail, “The Iceman” expertly unpacks the story of frighteningly prolific contract killer Richard Kuklinski. Holding its own among the numerous films and series about New Jersey mobsters, no-nonsense hitmen and their long-suffering wives and children, this latest effort from Israeli-born director Ariel Vromen is a model of lean, incisive filmmaking fronted by a commanding Michael Shannon and backed by a terrifically offbeat supporting cast. Grim subject matter and frequent, spasmodic violence will draw a limited but discerning arthouse audience.
Dubbed “the Iceman” for his practice of freezing his victims’ bodies so as to confuse the time of death, Kuklinski became an active associate of various East Coast crime families in the late 1950s; by conservative estimates, he killed more than 100 people before his arrest in 1986. Drawn from Anthony Bruno’s 1993 true-crime novel and a 1992 HBO documentary featuring interviews with Kuklinski behind bars (he died there in 2006), the loosely fictionalized script by Vromen and Morgan Land spans roughly two decades, dramatizing not only his grisly day-to-day activities but their gradual toll on his family, an effect comparable to that of slow-drip poison.
Predicated on the notion that Kuklinski’s wife and kids were the only people in the world he cared about, the story opens in 1964 with a first date between tough, terse Richie (Shannon) and sweetly unsuspecting Deborah (Winona Ryder). Holding down a job with a small-time smut racket (he tells Deborah he dubs Disney cartoons), Richie has no problem slitting the throat of anyone foolish enough to annoy him, a gift that soon places him in the employ of powerful crime boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). Business eventually proves lucrative enough for him to move Deborah and their two daughters (McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill) into a cozy Jersey suburb.
Skipping ahead a few months or years at a time, punctuated by regular eruptions of blood and gunfire, the picture amounts to more of a highly focused crime yarn than an under-the-skin case study. Yet without sacrificing tautness or momentum, Vromen and Land sneak in any number of telling psychological details: the intense purposefulness with which Richie courts and marries Deborah; his casual contempt for religion, expressed in his shockingly cruel treatment of a poor victim (James Franco, socking over his one scene) who prays for deliverance; and the abusive childhood he endured with his now-incarcerated brother (Stephen Dorff), briefly glimpsed in a flashback that reps one of the few facile moments here.
Above all, the story pivots on Richie’s extreme aversion to hurting women and children, a protective instinct that largely governs his relationship with his wife and daughters. Yet he’s not always able to spare them his terrifying displays of temper, and his later split with Demeo exposes them to the threat of harm in a way that makes Richie realize, for the first time, how vulnerable he really is
It should surprise no one by now that Shannon, so good at conveying inner torment and outward menace, is ideally cast as an utterly remorseless killing machine. A bit shorter and a lot leaner than the 6’5″, 300-pound Kuklinski, the thesp lets his trademark steely affect and sheer physical stature do the heavy lifting but also brings a precisely calibrated tension to every scene; even superficially pleasant interactions barely conceal a seething rage that explodes on occasion, to mesmerizing effect.
The unexpected pleasure of “The Iceman” is the stealth excellence of its ensemble, studded with tasty turns from actors cast against type and rendered almost unrecognizable by heavy shades, handlebar mustaches, longish hair and other ’60s and ’70s accoutrements. While Liotta is perfectly at home in this gangland saga (albeit striking entirely different notes from his work in the recent “Killing Them Softly”), even attentive viewers may have trouble identifying Chris Evans and David Schwimmer in their respective roles as Richie’s ace partner-in-crime and Demeo’s careless No. 2 goon. Also turning in topnotch character work are Robert Davi as a high-ranking crook, Danny Abeckaser as one of Richie’s few close friends and an ever-poignant Ryder as his increasingly disillusioned spouse.
Making a significant leap forward from his previous picture, 2006’s “Danika,” Vromen doesn’t throw any narrative curveballs here but brings an assured touch to well-worn material. He and production designer Nathan Amondson skillfully flesh out the film’s skuzzy terrain of pool halls, porno theaters and a blood-spattered slaughterhouse that Richie treats as casually as a home office — all bathed in murky, muted color tones and oppressive shadows by d.p. Bobby Bukowski. From Danny Rafic’s smooth editing, Haim Mazar’s moody score and the period-evocative soundtrack/design choices to the script’s near-total absence of self-consciously colorful mobster talk, the Louisiana-shot production exudes control and discipline at every level.