Michael Shannon—whose hot streak of late includes 2011's best (and most overlooked) performance in Take Shelter—has steadily built a catalog that dips into a huge swath of roles, from heroes to villains to corrupted do-gooders and stoned-out hillbillies. His unique visage adds an extra dimension to his startling portrayals, with his cracked features serving as a road map for all his characters have been through. The man's terrific in pretty much everything.
Shannon's considerable physical presence is perfect for The Iceman, the tale of Richard Kuklinski, a hit man who claimed to have killed more than 100 people while posing as a businessman to his unsuspecting family. As Kuklinski, Shannon seethes menace, stoically staring into the hellish abyss as he guns down whomever his boss (a formidable Ray Liotta) sees fit. It's a chilling true-crime nightmare.
Yet The Iceman comes off completely cold. Shannon brings bravado, but everything else is off. Ariel Vromen's film has the look, feel and pace of a TV movie crafted by a kid who grew up on Goodfellas, right down to montages of slaughter set to classic rock, and time jumps where you can only guess the decade by Shannon's ever-changing facial hair.
At no point do we get much backstory about Kuklinski, but that's almost irrelevant. This is, after all, a monster who showed no remorse whatsoever for his killings. That leaves it up to the supporting cast to shoulder the humanity as Kuklinski's crimes grow more disturbing, and with the exception of Liotta, nobody seems game. As the clueless wife, Winona Ryder seems on autopilot in a thankless role. Things begin looking up with the introduction of the gloriously named Mr. Freezy, an uneasy partner for Kuklinski who operates out of an ice-cream truck, but Chris "Captain America" Evans is underused and lost under a sea of bad wigs. Other casting choices are befuddling and distracting, such as a frantic, ponytailed David Schwimmer or a James Franco cameo.
In the hands of less-focused directors, The Iceman could have glorified the crimes of a monster, but Vromen manages to tell Kuklinski's story without piling on over-stylized violence. Shannon, meanwhile, creates a believable boogeyman. But as the supporting cast flounders and the plot becomes increasingly rudderless, the film grows more and more sterile. Maybe coming off ultra-cold is the point, but it certainly doesn't make the film engaging.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: The Iceman is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.