It's the actor's job in a movie to create a compelling performance out of an interesting character, and the director's job to frame that performance within the context of a well-structured drama.
In the lurid, one-note crime drama "The Iceman," actor Michael Shannon does his job brilliantly, but director/co-writer Ariel Vromen doesn't hold up his end of the deal.
Shannon portrays real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who committed more than 100 murders before his eventual arrest in 1986. Vromen and co-writer Morgan Land highlight the middle portion of Kuklinski's crime career, when he was working for a Newark mobster, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), and bringing in substantial money which he used to maintain a pleasant middle-class lifestyle for his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), and their two daughters (McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill), none of whom suspected what Daddy did for a living.
Kuklinski's fortunes shift when, after killing a snitch (James Franco, in an odd cameo) and letting a teen witness get away, Roy orders Kuklinski to stop murdering for him.
This leads Kuklinski to go freelance, teaming up with a rival hitman (Chris Evans) who does work for the Gambino crime family.
Vromen's strategy is to juxtapose Kuklinski's brutality at work with his domestic tenderness. This is set up from the movie's first scenes: Richard and Deborah have a sweet first date in a coffee shop, after which Richard slits the throat of a pool-hall blowhard who spoke rudely about Deborah. It's a smart idea that captures Kuklinski's paradox, but the repetition of the movie's violence dulls its impact.
Shannon's acting intensity has been well documented in films such as "Take Shelter" and "Bug" and is anticipated when he plays General Zod in the Superman reboot "Man of Steel" next month. He depicts Kuklinski as a coiled spring liable to go off at any moment.
Shannon would have been better served if Vromen hadn't let his star go off quite as often, because his build-up is more interesting than his release. This is one "Iceman" who's better served cold.
Michael Shannon gives a chilling performance in this lurid account of a real-life contract killer.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Now open.
Rating • R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content.
Running time • 106 minutes.