Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski in 'The Iceman.'
(Photo: Anne Marie Fox, Millennium Entertainment)
(USA TODAY) -- A vicious hit man is at the center of the gritty crime thriller The Iceman (*** out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities).
But almost as ominous as the sight of his throat-slittings and cold-blooded shootings is a scene in which he loses his temper over a minor fender-bender and takes his family on a harrowing car chase, with his terrified wife and daughters screaming for him to stop.
Michael Shannon gives a haunting performance as real-life New Jersey contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who on the one hand is a doting family man and on the other is a cold-blooded murderer of more than a hundred men.
"You and the girls are all I care about in the whole f------g world," he tells Deborah.
Initially Kuklinski tells his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) that he dubs Disney films; later he claims to be in finance. He actually works for local mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), collecting debts and dispatching those who don't pay or otherwise displease Roy.
"Somebody wants somebody dead, who am I to question it," is his rationale.
Shannon is brilliantly unnerving as he callously dispenses with people, then returns home to maintain his façade of a loving husband and father. One minute Kuklinski is reciting a sweet poem at his 16-year-old daughter's birthday party, the next he is approached by a gun-toting Roy.
"What are you gonna tell your wife when I blow your kids' heads off," Roy snarls, as only Liotta can.
Director Ariel Vromen interweaves flashbacks of Kuklinski's father beating him mercilessly, implying that the origins of his savagery likely began in childhood. Vroman deftly cuts back and forth between Kuklinski's vicious kills and suburban family life. He impressively captures the era, with minor film noir elements-from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s.
Chris Evans is terrific (and almost unrecognizable) as the greasy-haired, mustachioed Robert, aka Mr. Freezy, a cold-hearted killer who drives an ice cream truck. Robert works for several Mafia families and shows up for the same contract killing as Kuklinski. On the outs with Roy, Kuklinski suggests they partner up. But no good can come of this.
James Franco plays Marty, a prospective hit. David Schwimmer plays Josh, Roy's right-hand man, and Stephen Dorff plays Richard's estranged, imprisoned brother Joey.
Kuklinski was finally arrested in 1986, tried and sentenced to two life terms. Up until then, his wife and daughters claimed to have no idea about his profession.
His concluding words maintain the contours of his double life: "I never felt sorry for anything I've done, other than hurting my family," he says, as his wife and daughters cry in court. "I'm not looking for forgiveness. I'm not repenting. I know I'm wrong. I do want my family to forgive me."
He died in prison in 2006, without ever seeing his family again.
While the gun-for-hire biopic is no Godfather, Vroman explores the lead character's complexity, intriguingly cutting between vicious killings in sleazy settings and family tenderness.
Shannon's restrained and mesmerizing portrayal, bolstered by an excellent offbeat supporting cast, makes for an edgy and compelling Mob yarn.