Michael Shannon first came to our attention fully in psychological hurricane drama Take Shelter back in 2011. Since then his natural talent for subtly portraying emotionally scarred characters dealing with inner personal turmoil has captivated and fascinated. Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman in which the actor plays the lead of the same name is the cream of the crop, a truly mesmerising turn by Shannon that allows him to cultivate all his ugly thoughts into one brooding menace – helped by the fact that this is based on a true story. It is a performance worth catching before he becomes better known for being the latter-day General Zod in the forthcoming Man of Steel to show the full versatility of the man.
The Iceman is based on the real-life goings-on of Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) who worked for Newark’s DeCavalcante crime family and New York City’s Five Families. Kuklinski is said to have murdered over 100 men, possibly up to 250, between 1948 and 1986, while living the other half of his double live as a husband and father in a quite suburban life with a wife and two children. Kuklinski earned his icy nickname after freezing victims’ corpses in an industrial freezer to disguise the time of death.
Matching Kuklinski in height to produce a towering force, Shannon is like a curious ticking time bomb in this, whose Jekyll-and-Hyde persona allows the actor to combine moments of measured calm and unexpected sensitivity when it comes to his family with explosive rage in a deadly profession. Vromen’s film captures an awkward, almost shy Kuklinski in his early courting days around future wife Deborah Pellicotti, played by Winona Ryder. With both Shannon and Ryder’s easy knack for playing the vulnerable, these scenes have an almost endearing fragility and innocence to them, allowing The Iceman to show a small flicker of humanity and purpose other than killing. In this respect we come to sympathise with his determination to protect what matters, making his character less two-dimensional and all the more unpredictable.
On the flip side, Shannon’s bug-eyed intensity and fixed stare ensure the chilling tension gloriously simmers ready to escalate at the drop of a hat. It’s this alone that keeps the film’s momentum in full flow masking what is in effect an average gangster thriller along the same lines as Ray Liotta’s paranoid family man Henry Hill in Goodfellas, with a charismatic lead character going haywire at the fore. Whereas Liotta’s had a black comedy value to it, as did the whole of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film, Shannon’s is purely nefarious, helped by the gritty, subdued and richly contrasting cinematography. As with most serial killers’ escapades on screen, the bloody death toll mounts and becomes desensitising after a while with the real nail-biting thrill being Kuklinski’s imminent demise.
Naturally, no Mafia film would be complete without an appearance by Liotta who plays the steely cold and unhinged crime boss Roy Demeo with unsurprising ease, though Liotta ratchets up the malice in this, more so than we have seen him do so before in this genre. There is also a nice and virtually unrecognisable performance from Chris Evans as Mr Freezy, the ice-cream-van-driving hitman who inspired Kuklinski’s deep-freeze methods, proving this actor has intriguing and yet unplucked strings to his bow than the average superhero portrayal.
With a dynamic Shannon at the helm doing what he does best, Vromen’s film has an out-of-control vehicle to drive it up the box office listings, coupled with a healthy interest in the movements of one notorious serial killer, however complacent and conventional the rest of the film feels – admittedly, hard to escape from within the Mafia gangster genre. Again, this simply re-emphasises the urgent need to witness Shannon terrorising the frame before Superman swoops in.