Michael Shannon is having what they call "a moment," with an acclaimed lead performance in last year's Take Shelter, ongoing praise for HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and a special mention in almost every review of Premium Rush, about which he seems to have been the most memorable thing. That's on top of the well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination he got for 2008's Revolutionary Road, about which he was definitely the most memorable thing.
The lead role in The Iceman -- based on the true story of prolific contract killer Richard Kuklinski -- is a natural fit for him. Kuklinski was a devoted husband and father whose family had no inkling of his double life, and Shannon's intense face can express both cold-blooded evil and warm, unassuming averageness. But the film proves a lost opportunity, a good showcase for Shannon, and a chance to see David Schwimmer as a New Jersey wannabe wiseguy with a mustache and ponytail, but not much else.
Taking full advantage of Shannon's range, director Ariel Vroman starts the film with a close-up of Kuklinski, wildly bearded and apparently incarcerated, listening as an unseen interviewer asks if he has any regrets. Using only his eyes, Shannon conveys that the man he's playing is more monster than human.
We cut to a diner in Jersey City in 1964, where a young, clean-shaven Richie Kuklinski is meeting a nice girl named Deborah (Winona Ryder) for coffee. Now Shannon is the picture of shy gentlemanliness, uneducated and rough around the edges but not the least bit menacing. Deborah, giggling, is smitten, and you can see why. Richie isn't putting on an act here. This is who he really is. And shortly thereafter, when he slits the throat of a man who crossed him? That's also who he really is. Shannon is equally convincing in both halves of the character.
In the spirit of Goodfellas, which The Iceman seeks to emulate (see next sentence for more evidence), we skip quickly through the next decade or so. Richie gets hired as a goon for local gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta -- see?), who admires Richie's ability to commit the most heinous of deeds without flinching. "The Pollock," as Roy calls him, kills a lot of guys in a lot of ways at Roy's behest. Deborah, now Richie's wife and the mother of his little girls, thinks he makes his living in the field of currency exchange.
This sounds like the setup for a violent, gripping crime saga, especially knowing that the man Richie works for is nearly as sociopathic as he is. But it isn't. Violent, yes. Gripping, no. Vromen's screenplay, which he coadapted with Morgan Land from Anthony Bruno's book, dutifully delivers a grim series of events from Richie's life, including battles with Roy Demeo, an alliance with a fellow killer (Chris Evans), a beef with Demeo's overeager lapdog (David Schwimmer), and the perpetual effort to keep Deborah in the dark. But there's no attempt to get inside Kuklinski's head. What drives him? Does he enjoy murder? What is his thought process?
The closest the film gets to exploring any of this is a momentary flashback to growing up under the constant beatings of an angry father, and a brief conversation with his imprisoned brother (Stephen Dorff). But that barely scratches the surface, of course. To think that THAT'S the explanation -- he had a mean dad -- and that there's nothing else to be said is laughable. Nor does Richie evolve over the course of the film, except insofar as he cultivates more facial hair to reflect deeper involvement in contract killing.
And so Richie, despite being the film's main character, never seems like a character at all. His crimes, while loathsome, aren't portrayed with enough malicious flair to make the film work as a sick killfest -- Vromen is too serious-minded for that -- but it's not rich enough to work as a biography either. It's an exploitation film trapped in the stifling body of a respectable crime drama.