The phrase “banality of evil” popped up when historians sought to explain the bland men and women who carried out the Holocaust, when critics looked for ways to describe the often dull villains that Alfred Hitchcock astutely observed were not all that interesting, outside of their crimes.
Richard Kuklinski could be banality of evil’s poster-child. A poker-faced family man, from New Jersey no less, this real-life monster carried out cold-blooded killings for the mob for over a decade. Nothing glamorous about it, no sexual-sadistic glee evident on his part. Just a job of work, a cold calculation on who had to die, and how that death could be achieved without Kuklinski getting caught.
Michael Shannon has the voice and face of a mass murderer in this film, the sort of man who can tell he soon-to-be wife (Winona Ryder) “I dub cartoons for a living,” when in reality he duplicates porn films for the mob. And when mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) orders it, Richie Kuklinski has no more compunction about killing for money than he does about making porn.
“The Iceman” establishes that this guy had a temper long before he was paid to murder for the mob. His rage is under control. He knows his place, which keeps him alive when Demeo and his lieutenants (David Schwimmer among them) jerk him around.
He becomes “The Polack,” a reliable killer for the Jersey mob who isn’t Italian. Therefore he’ll never become “a made man,” a genuine “goodfella.”
That’s the film that “The Iceman” best compares to, and it’s no coincidence that here Liotta has his best screen role since “Goodfellas.” He plays paranoid and ruthless with a lifetime of abandon here, a brittle, brilliant turn.
Shannon makes Richie stoic, quiet, a guy who never talks about his methods, even when he hooks up with a hipper version of himself, played with manic verve by Chris “Captain America” Evans.
“Pray to God. Tell him to come down and stop me,” Kuklinski tells one victim. He’s a little slow, maybe even conflicted, and he’s looking for a reason to believe.
James Franco plays one target who gets to try and talk his way out of the jam, and Ryder is splendid as the mob wife who never acknowledges it. She simply doesn’t know or want to know, never wonders that the nasal, flat-voiced father of her children is first a cartoon voice, then a currency trader — with no education — because he never shows up at home with blood on his hands.
The dialogue is hard-bitten and Mamet-sharp. Co-writer/director Ariel Vroman keeps the screen dark — dingy lounges and dark alleys — and the mood forboding, as character players like Robert Davi show up to remind the killer that “Life can be very random, sometimes.”
And Shannon, one of the most riveting actors on the screen today, never lets us forget that this guy has a low-IQ sort of cunning, an unaffected menace that would have made him a helluva poker player, had he not been chosen to commit lowdown and dirty murder.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer
Directed by Ariel Vroman, scripted by Morgan Land and Ariel Vroman. A Millennium release.
Running time: 1:45
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content