That THE ICEMAN is a film eminently worth seeing is a tribute to Michael Shannon. The true story of Richard Kuklinski, aka The Iceman, is a conventionally told tale of organized crime, but Shannon, as the cold-blooded hitman with a schizophrenic tenderness for his family is riveting. Through the film is a lesser light, as are most of the supporting players, it almost seems more of a deference to Shannon’s preternatural calm that transcends mere sangfroid, than to a cinematic failing.
It begins with Shannon’ face in close-up, etched in shadow and light like an Old Testament prophet, being asked if he regrets anything. Flashback to an awkward first date with his soon-to-be wife, Deb (Winona Ryder). She’s teasing him for being so quiet, batting her eyes demurely from above a prim white Peter Pan collar and black jumper that is like nothing so much as a nun’s habit. He attempts conversation, is charmed by her, and her by his obvious inner loneliness. She, and the two daughters they will eventually have are the center of his life, but his inner demons, the ones responsible for the loneliness still haunt him. Richie is a clever guy, though, and channels his demons into a lucrative career as a hitman, giving Deb the life he thinks she deserves while she never questions where all the money is coming from.
Organized crime, in the person of Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), is a complex business of bottom lines and honor and loyalty. In that order. Roy is smart enough to see Richie’s potential, despite his non-Italian heritage, but is blind to the weakness (shades of Freddo) in his own protégé, Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer). In an interesting juxtaposition, Richie keeps business and personal life, i.e. emotions, separate, while the Made Man is a rank amateur in that area. The writing is never quite sharp enough to raise that dichotomy into sharp relief, but Liotta, rising above the cliché of his casting, shows the proper respect for his character, making a fairly predictable arc moving if not surprising.
What is surprising is the way THE ICEMAN deals with violence. It is in its way as cold-blooded as Richie himself. When asked by Roy to prove his mettle by shooting a stranger, there are no blazing guns or scene chewing dramatics. Instead, Richie is smart, cool, and low-key enough to do the job on a busy street with no one noticing. It’s not the blood that shocks, it’s the impersonal fashion in which Richie goes about his killing. Slitting a man’s throat with no more thought than for cracking open a watermelon, even when that man has insulted him, or curious enough about another victim’s faith to let him pray for divine intervention, and sit patiently with him while waiting for it. Yet Shannon is just as believable cradling his baby daughter during a late-night feeding, and cooing over her while doing it. Further kudos to Shannon for his ability to rock the questionable fashions of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Backstory is kept to a minimum, with glimpses of the brutal childhood that produced Richie’s strange relationship with murder, but it’s Shannon that supplies the glimpse of the little boy still longing for the family love he never got as a child, and makes that a plausible explanation for the hair-trigger temper that explodes only where wife and daughters are concerned.
The larger question of how a man who longs for decency finds himself a legendary hitman has its own rewards, if they are fleeting. THE ICEMAN is a chance to see one of the best actors of his generation at work, and a satisfying experience it is.