Notorious criminals who inspire movie biopics rarely are colder or nastier than Richard Kuklinski, the high-achieving contract killer who likely killed more than 100 people while working for the mob.
In “The Iceman,” Kuklinski comes alive, courtesy of actor Michael Shannon, as an intensely unembraceable protagonist while displaying just enough humanity to be watchable and sometimes riveting.
Unfortunately, the movie undermines his superb performance by failing to treat Kuklinski with adequate depth.
Director-cowriter Ariel Vromen (“Danika”) alternates between the gangland and domestic worlds of Kuklinski, who, when not pulling triggers or slitting throats, is shown as a family man (albeit one willing to poison the kitty).
The story transpires in New York and New Jersey over three decades, ending with Kuklinski’s arrest in 1986.
Things begin in 1964, when Kuklinski (Shannon) is working as a porn-film bootlegger for mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and telling future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) that he dubs Disney cartoons for a living. In a display of the denial that will long characterize her, she believes him.
Kuklinski starts ascending when Demeo tests his toughness by instructing him to kill a homeless man. Acing the trial, Kuklinski becomes Demeo’s personal enforcer.
After Demeo severs ties with Kuklinski following Kuklinski’s nonstandard handling of a job, Kuklinski teams with freelance killer “Mr. Freezy” (Chris Evans), who drives an ice-cream truck and keeps victims’ bodies frozen therein.
When Demeo, having ordered Kuklinski to give up killing, learns of this partnership, he isn’t pleased.
Admirably, Vromen, cowriting with Morgan Land and basing the film on a book by Anthony Bruno and documentary by Jim Thebaut, doesn’t soften his sadistic, remorseless protagonist.
And Shannon, who in “Take Shelter” and “Revolutionary Road” played disturbed people masterfully, affirms that talent with the sociopathic Kuklinski.
Presented with neither sympathy nor colorful personality that often defines even the meanest movie killers, Shannon’s Kuklinski remains cold and cruel with dead-looking eyes that make even his most mundane actions palpably scary.
At the same time, in the family scenes, he exhibits tiny but terrific hints of humanity. The simple sight of him bottle-feeding his infant daughter, every-dad style, is eerily affecting.
Yet the film doesn’t explore who Kuklinski is. Vromen gets caught up in the crimes instead of examining the frustrations and pathology of the man committing them.
Kuklinski’s relationship with the clueless Deborah, who continues to think her husband is a businessman, is treated frustratingly vaguely.
Lacking the electricity of Martin Scorsese’s mob films, the wit of the Coen brothers’ grisly crime stories, or the edge of Todd Solondz’s suburban satires, “The Iceman” is ultimately conventional, but boosted by an extraordinary central performance.
Fine supporting actors include David Schwimmer as Demeo’s bumbling underling and James Franco as a Kuklinski victim.
"The Iceman" (two and a half stars)
Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris EvansWritten by Ariel Vromen, Morgan LandDirected by Ariel VromenRated R Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes