In "The Iceman," Michael Shannon's mesmerizing portrayal of Richard Kuklinski, a notorious contract killer, has the paradoxical quality, peculiar to many great screen performances, of being unreadable and transparent.
You can't really see through Richard, whose pale-blue eyes take in the world from a face as expressionless as a sphinx. But in its tiniest tremors you can sense explosive forces roiling below the mask and grasp the duality with a visceral feeling of dread.
It is a performance that has the same life-or-death gravity Shannon brought to the role of a man driven half-mad by apocalyptic portents in "Take Shelter."
Richard operates in the treacherous milieu of Tony Soprano, but in an earlier era: the 1960s, '70s and '80s. He is a seething loner, and although not as bright, sociable or complicated as James Gandolfini's Tony, the two have one crucial similarity: Both are fiercely devoted family men who go to great lengths to shield their loved ones from the dirty reality of their work.
Richard is so secretive that late in the movie when mobsters pay him an unannounced house call, he is dismayed to discover that they know the exact location of his home in suburban New Jersey.
Where "The Sopranos" and its close cinematic equivalent, "Goodfellas," are warmblooded explorations of violent men bonding, "The Iceman," directed by Ariel Vromen from a screenplay he wrote with Morgan Land, is as cold as the nickname of its title character. Its story is based on Anthony Bruno's novel, "The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer," and the 1992 HBO documentary, "The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With a Killer."
The real-life Kuklinski claimed to have committed his first murder as a young teenager. He was convicted of many contract killings for various New York-area crime organizations in 1988. He died in 2006. Estimates of the number of his victims range from 100 to 250. The movie was shot in Shreveport, La., which convincingly doubles for New York and New Jersey.
Richard is bootlegging pornographic movies for the Mafia when he marries Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder), whom he meets in the early 1960s and woos by telling her she "is prettier than Natalie Wood." She thinks that he makes his living dubbing Disney cartoons.
The first sign of his terrifying possessiveness and rage is his murder of a bar patron who makes a crude remark about Deborah. Playing a slavishly devoted wife who refuses to face the truth even when it stares her in the face, Ryder gives her deepest screen performance in years.
Richard's opportunities expand when Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), a crime lord flanked by two minions, Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) and Mickey Scicoli (John Ventimiglia), visits his shabby studio and threatens his life for being late on a delivery.
Impressed by Richard's composure with a gun pointed at him, Roy enlists him as his personal hit man.
Richard's fortunes quickly rise (he tells Deborah he is working on Wall Street), and the Kuklinskis move to a comfortable home in the suburbs and have two daughters.
"The Iceman" knows what it is and what it's not. It doesn't strive for the operatic grandeur of the "Godfather" movies or for the tragicomic flair of Martin Scorsese's mobster movies. Its bleak, ominous atmosphere derives from its central character. The movie's cool desaturated color lends it the look and feel of a television documentary, but there is a difference. Bobby Bukowski's cinematography and Nathan Amondson's production design sustain a look of deep grunge in which the characters are almost swallowed up in darkness.
Cameo performances from Stephen Dorff as Richard's violent brother Joey, incarcerated in a New Jersey prison, and James Franco as one of Richard's victims illuminate this extremely well-acted film like struck matches.
If the narrow biographical focus of "The Iceman" prevents it from being a great crime movie, on its own more modest terms it is an indelible film that clinches Shannon's status as a major screen actor.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, James Franco, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia and Danny Abeckaser
Director: Ariel Vromen
Rated R (violence, strong language and some sexual content)