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'The Iceman' review: Michael Shannon chills as real-life hitman

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Director: Ariel Vromen; Screenwriter Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen; Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, James Franco; Running time: 105 mins; Certificate: 15


A divided and uneven drama to match its protagonist's divided and chaotic state of mind, Ariel Vromen's The Iceman does nothing to reinvent the 1970s New York mobster genre, but grips thanks to a ferocious and nuanced turn from Michael Shannon.

At the time of his arrest in 1986, Richard Kuklinski had spent more than two decades working as a contract killer for the New York mafia, although he claimed to have committed his first murder long before he made a career out of it. What's most remarkable about his story is how he kept the truth from his wife (played here by Winona Ryder) and held down an outwardly respectable suburban life. It's this schism that Vronen seems most interested in exploring; he had Shannon film all of the mob sequences first before bringing in Ryder for the domestic scenes, presumably to reflect Kuklinski's compartmentalised life.

Within the first ten minutes, we've witnessed Kuklinski's first date with future wife Deborah, and his far-from-first spontaneous murder. With Deborah, he's sweet, cautious, seemingly inexperienced with women; with his victim, he strikes without hesitation. He tells Deborah he does sound work on cartoons; in truth, he works in a porn film lab, which is where he's recruited by mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta).

Winona Ryder in 'The Iceman'

Winona Ryder in 'The Iceman'

But rather than acting as an outlet, the work only fosters psychotic tendencies that might otherwise have been buried, and as Kuklinski becomes increasingly paranoid the ruthless aggression required for his day job begins to seep into his home life. Shannon's a dab hand at glowering intensity and hair-trigger rage, but it's the moments of transition from one extreme to the other that are most frightening.

Ryder, who gives an affectingly fragile performance, reportedly went through her script and crossed out every scene that Deborah would not have had knowledge of. It's an understandable attempt to define what's by necessity an underwritten character; her blindness to Kuklinski's secret life never quite tallies with the increasingly terrifying outbursts she witnesses at home.

Part of the problem is Vronen and co-writer Morgan Land's efforts to humanise a man who was by many accounts sub-human; Kuklinski's violence towards Deborah is curbed significantly compared to her real-life testimony. It's an understandable concession - audiences simply won't engage as readily with a character who regularly beats his wife - but the marriage never quite adds up on screen.

An enjoyably weird supporting cast lends interest to what's otherwise a relatively familiar portrayal of New York mobsters - David Schwimmer crops up in a shellsuit, James Franco has a cameo as the victim whose murder Kuklinski has described as his most sadistic, and an unrecognisable Chris Evans plays the fellow contract killer who taught Kuklinski how to deep-freeze corpses, earning him the Iceman moniker.

Vronen's film-of-two-halves approach to shooting shows in The Iceman's sometimes muddled tone, and he spends too much time on the familiar crime tropes rather than the genuinely fascinating family story. But the conflict pays off in one blistering sequence during Kuklinski's young daughter's birthday party, where the menace of his professional life collides chillingly with the domestic sphere. This is a flawed but intermittently magnetic thriller.

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