Michael Shannon is impossible to ignore — not only because the 38-year-old actor seems to be absolutely everywhere these days (look for him as General Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel) but also because he’s not someone you can easily turn away from. The slightly offset eyes, the square jaw and the boxy shoulders capping off his huge imposing frame and that deep resonating voice — you see someone like Shannon coming your way, glowering with jaw jutting forward, you know you’ve done something terribly wrong.
So who better to step into the very real shoes of a contract killer who disposed of people for the mob while also, until his 1986 arrest, maintaining to his wife and family that he was an investment banker? That’s exactly what he plays in The Iceman, and the best aspect of the film is that it places Shannon into another richly-deserved leading role. The role is not a glamorous one that requires him to turn in an Oscar-baiting performance, but as Richard Kuklinski, Shannon is allowed a nice slow boil that only spills over the side when there’s blood to be spilled (or when his family is at risk).
Unfortunately, however, the material Shannon has to work with does not equal the intensity and subtlety that the actor brings to the role. Although based on two books that explore the dual life of Kuklinski, screenwriters Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen (who also directed the film) stick too heavily to some rather eye-rolling motivation to explain away Kuklinski’s life choices. He has no qualms about slashing a man’s throat in his car for insulting his fiancee? Well, that must mean he was abused as a child. He breaks his promise not to work for anyone else but crime boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta)? It’s just because he wants to earn his keep and provide a better life for his family, of course! These may actually be what Kuklinski told interviewers in real life, but these ideas are injected into the film version with a disregard for the intelligence of the viewers. When Vromen does reserve information and ask us to catch up via some context clues in the plot — such as when Kuklinski goes to visit his incarcerated younger brother (Stephen Dorff) — the scenes are almost brazen in their lack of grounding. Hard to know in those situations whether to applaud his insolence or scold him.
Those moments provide an odd sort of distraction, but not as much as the strange casting decisions made to fill out the borders of the film. Winona Ryder does a fine enough job stifling the urge to go into full Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas mode in her role as Kuklinski’s dark spouse. And Liotta is his usual reliable self, allowing a nice thin thread of fury to undercut his every interaction. But what of the weird presence of David Schwimmer, whose ridiculous wigs and facial hair can’t mask the weedy voice and presence that are unavoidable to anyone with cable television? And how did James Franco end up wandering into this film for his brief scene? If that doesn’t slap you out of the mood Vromen is trying to create, you might be asleep.
Through it all, though, Shannon remains the rock of this film. Even when he is asked to barely suppress his rage and fear at the walls closing in on him and his family from outside, he manages it without brash overacting or hysterics. If only the rest of the film aimed for a similar tone of restraint.