The story of Richard Kuklinski (portrayed here by Michael Shannon) is one of those true crime tales that you simply can’t believe. It’s too crazy to be true, but it also has that “made for the movies” vibe. It is so carefully plotted and surreally episodic in its chronological movement, if told as fiction, it would read like something from Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland) or Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Live By Night). Price and Lehane know a thing or two about constructing solid thrillers, tales embedded in the dark underbelly, but there’s little of the flashy patter you sometimes get from Elmore Leonard. They reveal the ordinary and the mundane in the thinking of their characters and they stick words in the mouths of their criminals that define these men and women — their base humanity.
Which takes me back to Kuklinski, a contract killer with a head and heart for this life and not much else. We see him early on, as he faces that very first situation where he must make a choice, the choice that must feel as natural to him as breathing or blinking in the face of bright light. He does what he must and, besides there being not a moment’s worth of hesitation, Kuklinski looks relieved and whole. He’s found the one thing that gives his life meaning and realizes that there’s no turning back.
But what he does must remain hidden, so he erects a crude façade, complete with a loving wife (Winona Ryder) and children and a sturdy shell of everyday routine that looks like the American Dream. He pretends to be the eager squirrel collecting nuts.
For the film to work, though, we have to do something more than believe what we know cannot be true, for we, unlike his wife and children, know the truth.
We have to believe in Kuklinski. Director Ariel Vromen, who steps out of the shadows with this feature, keeps things suitably dark and gritty. The feel of The Iceman recalls early James Gray, a director like Price and Lehane, who traffics in the nocturnal rhythms of the criminal world. The Iceman makes for a nice shotgun companion to Little Odessa and The Yards. But he found the perfect Kuklinski in Shannon who must have imagined himself as an instrument in the hand of Vromen. Yet, not some blunt bone-breaking tool. What Vromen needed and Shannon provides is a multi-purpose precision piece, at turns heavy and crude, but also intimate and sharp for the up-close kills.
And that is exactly what Shannon becomes. At first, we only see the sledgehammer of his wide-set face, the blackness of his eyes and we wonder if there’s any life at all in him. Soon, though, once the family comes into play, faint hints of humanity creep into view. Shannon lets us see these cracks. It is a pleasure to watch him work because, in the last few years, he has become a more recognizable presence onscreen.
Advancing beyond his bit turns in Bad Boys II and Vanilla Sky, he’s earned an Academy Award nomination for his thunderous supporting effort in Revolutionary Road, stolen the spotlight in The Runaways, maintained the calm and creepy center of Take Shelter and is now prepared to give us a new take on General Zod in Man of Steel. Zod would appear to be an impossible role for another actor to step into following Terrence Stamp’s memorably icy performance in Superman II, but Shannon certainly gives the impression that he’s got some sort of sub-zero sludge oozing through his veins. The man is cold-blooded.
After running through his filmography here, I would be shocked to learn any personal details about Shannon. In all the ways that matter, he is exactly like Kuklinski, keeping secrets from us. It is safe to say that I can fully appreciate the dilemma of Kuklinski’s family when, in 1986, the trap springs on Kuklinski, resulting in his incarceration. Watching him being dragged away and later hearing the account of this murderous other life, it would be like finding out that Shannon actually has a quiet, sane existence off-screen.
The closest any of us should come to that notion peeks through in his exchanges with, of all performers, Chris Evans, another contract killer who eventually partners with Kuklinski for a time. Moreso than with his family, it is in this relationship with a kindred spirit that we catch a glimpse of the real man lurking inside Kuklinski. This is similar to what Shannon shares with us in every performance, but he wisely keep the rest of himself locked away in that emotional deep freeze. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) Grade: A-
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