The Iceman: Venice Review

The Iceman
The redoubtable Michael Shannon leads a superb cast in Ariel Vromen's compelling portrait of New Jersey career criminal Richard Kuklinski.

Michael Shannon leads a star-studded ensemble cast in Ariel Vromen's gritty gangster thriller about real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski.

VENICE -- A densely plotted account of the life and crimes of Richard Kuklinski, who murdered more than 100 people before he was apprehended in 1986, The Iceman is a vivid evocation of a remorseless sociopath sustaining a double life as a contract killer and devoted family man. Gritty, gripping and unrelentingly intense, Ariel Vromen’s film boasts richly detailed character work from an ideal cast. But the driving force is Michael Shannon in the title role, showing yet again that he can explore the darkness within like few actors working today.

There’s considerable overlap here with crime sagas from Goodfellas to The Sopranos, and though his film is certainly not quite up there with the classics of Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, Vromen paints from his own palette. In tone, The Iceman perhaps most closely resembles the early work of James Gray in its neo-noir edginess and contagious fascination with the dourest and most dangerous of milieus. One of its most bracing characteristics, established from the outset, is the fluid juxtaposition of tenderness and violence.

The screenplay, by Morgan Land and Vromen, was based on a fictionalized book by Anthony Bruno and on James Thebaut’s 1992 HBO documentary, The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With a Killer. That source is reflected in a framing device in which the aged, bearded Kuklinski responds to questions in prison, with Shannon looking like a fine-grained Rembrandt drawing in the half-light.

PHOTO: 'Iceman' Poster Stars Michael Shannon as Menacing Killer

The duality of Polish-American Richie’s existence is illustrated right off the bat during his first date, in Jersey City in 1964, with his future wife, virtuous Catholic girl Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder). She coaxes Richie through his conversational reticence to declare shyly, “You’re a prettier version of Natalie Wood.” The sweetness of that scene invests us instantly in the film’s central relationship. A barroom interlude follows in which a pool player aggravates Richie, who calmly slits his throat in the back alley afterward, suggesting this is far from the first time he has killed.

Richie convinces Deborah that he works dubbing Disney films, but he actually bootlegs porn videos. Before long he gets on the personal payroll of steely unaffiliated gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who admires his ability to keep cool while staring down the barrel of a gun. After testing his loyalty by having him dispatch a homeless guy, Roy hires Richie to watch his back, collect debts and “send messages.” As Richie and Deborah’s family grows with the birth of two daughters in the Jersey suburbs, his emotionless efficiency carrying out kills is expertly chronicled.

Here and elsewhere, the work of editor Danny Rafic is hypnotic in weaving together the separate strands of Richie’s personal and professional life, underscoring the radical contrast between them.

When Roy’s filial-like minion Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) angers rival mob families by robbing and taking out drug couriers during an exchange, Roy comes under pressure from their mediator Leo Marks (Robert Davi). This indirectly puts Richie in an awkward position that ends with him being shut out of the operation and unable to continue providing for his oblivious family, who think he’s in finance.

Land and Vromen’s script delves into intriguing details in the developments that follow, when Richie teams up with another free-agent killer, Dutch-Irish Robert Pronge (a stringy-haired, virtually unrecognizable Chris Evans), whose cover is running a Mr. Freezy ice-cream truck. They begin using cyanide spray as an undetectable murder method, freezing the bodies to dump later, mutilating them to fit the profile of an existing serial killer. In one memorable scene, Richie carries out a hit by employing just a strategic cough on a crowded disco dance floor, accompanied on the soundtrack by Blondie.

However, when Roy becomes aware that Richie is back in the game, he closes in, for the first time compromising the safety of his former henchman's beloved family.

Vromen’s handle on this incident-packed story is unerring, with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski bathing the world in grim, chiaroscuro shadow and bled-out, murky colors that conjure the environment and the time -- from the 1960s through the mid-‘80s -- with arresting yet visually unfussy style. The gracefulness and composure of the camerawork even through some of the more volatile action shows highly assured craftsmen at work. Production designer Nathan Amondson and costumer Donna Zakowska’s understated period reconstruction is similarly focused. Another invaluable contribution is Haim Mazar’s score, which molds a sense of unpredictable violence and dread without drawing undue attention to itself.

But the film’s chief asset is without question its performances. It’s terrific to see Ryder back in such a juicy role, and she brings a lovely ethereal quality to Deborah, as well as a certain willful blindness that allows her to ignore the inconsistencies in Richie’s front until very late. Actors like Liotta and Davi often have been unimaginatively used in these kinds of roles, but there’s a measured quality to their menace here that makes them extremely compelling.

Evans brings an unforced toughness and immorality that couldn’t be more distant from his recent Captain America turn in The Avengers, while an equally transformed Schwimmer, with porn stache and greasy ponytail, plays effectively against type. James Franco and Stephen Dorff have one riveting scene apiece, respectively as one of Richie’s assigned hits, praying for his life, and as the estranged brother with whom Richie ends up sharing a cell-block address.

But the smoldering center of the drama is Shannon. While we receive fragments of information about the violent conditioning of Richie’s brutal childhood only an hour into the film, it’s clear from the outset that this is a complex man whose capacity to kill as well as to love have been cemented by harsh experience. Shannon is no less consumed by his role here than he was in Take Shelter. It’s a tribute to this astonishing actor that no matter how vicious his actions, Richie remains an antihero with an unyielding grip on our attentions.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Ehud Bleiberg, Millennium Films
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, James Franco, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny Abeckaser, Stephen Dorff, John Ventimiglia, Jay Giannone, Ryan O’Nan
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenwriters: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen, based on the book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer,” by Anthony Bruno, and the documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With a Killer,” by James Thebaut
Producers: Avi Lerner, Ariel Vromen, Ehud Bleimberg
Executive producers: Lati Grobman, Laura Rister, Rene Besson, John Thompson, Danny Dimbort, Rabbit Bandini Productions, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Nathan Amondson
Music: Haim Mazar
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Danny Rafic
Sales: Millennium Films
No rating, 97 minutes