The Iceman: Michael Shannon Dominates the Screen as Real-Life Jersey City Serial Killer

He’s a monster, but you root for him anyway

The Iceman charts the dual trajectory of a modern Jekyll and Hyde with growing horror.

The Iceman charts the dual trajectory of a modern Jekyll and Hyde with growing horror.

One of the most versatile and magnetic actors on the screen today, Michael Shannon has established such a reputation for playing twisted, violent and unpredictable characters that it comes as no surprise to see him dominate the screen as real-life Jersey City serial killer and mob hit man Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. It’s a role of chilling power in a carefully compiled must-see film of overwhelming intensity that raises the genre of old-school crime thriller to the inescapable urgency of docudrama.

Kuklinski led a double life—as both a cold-blooded killer and a loving father, husband and devoted family man. When he was finally arrested in 1986, his wife and daughters knew nothing of his criminal activities. He was so clever at concealing the causes and times of the deaths of his victims that he was called “the iceman” because of his skillful use of cold-storage lockers to freeze the corpses. When he died in 2006 while serving five consecutive life sentences, he admitted to killing more than 100 people, although estimates reach 250. The true extent of his crimes will never be known. But the film, directed by Ariel Vromen from a dark and gripping screenplay he wrote with Morgan Land, catalogs enough of Kuklinksi’s savagery to send ice cubes down the spine.

From his first date in 1964 with future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder), the film jumps around in episodic time frames like a tennis ball, as Richie Kuklinski lays the bricks and mortar of what appears to be a normal life, carefully constructed to conceal grim secrets. Deb naively thinks Richie goes off to work in the morning to dub Walt Disney movies when actually he’s focusing his talents as a film editor on porno flicks. Before they even tie the knot, he shows signs of a raging temper. One minute he charms her by taking her out to dinner in Jersey City and making her laugh, dangling a spoon on his nose. An hour later he’s in an alley, slashing the throat of a guy who made a rude remark. He’s an obvious maniac to everyone but the family he stashes away in an idyllic suburban ranch house on a quiet street with a big, shady lawn.

Soon, issues with the pornography bootleg business bring him to the attention of the Gambino crime family, run by mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), and he begins carrying out executions with such a variety of methods (guns, knives, explosives, strangling, poison) that the police can’t trace all the murders to a single suspect. The Iceman traces the development of Richie’s lucrative career from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, but as the 1970s near their close, personality conflicts arise between him and the mob’s crazy, ponytailed Jewish lieutenant Josh Rosenthal (a pudgy, moustached David Schwimmer) that turn him into a freelancer, partnering with a rival killer-for-hire, “Mister Freezy” Pronge (nicknamed after an ice cream truck and played by the usually dashing Chris Evans, who has turned from Captain America into a sleazy creep for the assignment). This act of defiance raises the ante on the mob’s growing impatience with Richie, leading to ghastly carnage. When the money rolls in, his wife thinks he’s mastered the stock market. The suspense mounts. You won’t doze off during this one.

There isn’t much humor involved, and director Mr. Vromen tends to pile on too many gangster-movie clichés, but enhanced by Kuklinski’s constantly changing hairstyles, trendy period clothes, cars and other details, and meticulously framed by ace cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, The Iceman charts the dual trajectory of a modern Jekyll and Hyde with growing horror. Michael Shannon plays the mood shifts in a complex character of dramatic polar opposites with riveting skill. As a tabloid psychopath, he has never looked more dangerous and unstable; one minute he’s heating the milk and feeding the baby, the next minute he’s fearlessly stealing half a million in cocaine from the Cuban drug cartels and killing the couriers. After sending his girls off to Catholic school, he drills several rounds of ammo into Demeo’s best friend (James Franco) without wincing. But he has ethics (“I don’t kill women and children”) and he’s ashamed of his brother Joey (another sterling performance by Stephen Dorff), who is serving a life sentence in prison for killing a girl, even though his own crimes are worse. Ironically, Richie meets his own fate in prison in a suspicious act of foul play when he is on the verge of testifying against the Gambino syndicate. Like Paul Muni in Scarface, Michael Shannon is so fascinating that I was honestly rooting for him to survive. The point of The Iceman is “Even monsters are human,” but it takes a great actor to make a dubious theme convincing.

rreed@observer.com

THE ICEMAN

Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen

Directed by Ariel Vromen

Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder and Chris Evans

Running time: 105 mins.

Rating: 3/4 Stars