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An intensely cold ruthless 'Iceman' cometh

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Most of Richard Kuklinski's life is a lie.

He loves his wife and daughters with a ferocious devotion, that much is true. But when he's pirating pornography, his wife thinks he works for Disney. When he becomes a hired killer for the mob, he tells her he works on Wall Street, which may not be much better.

“The Iceman,” Ariel Vromen's dark crime drama, is based on the real Kuklinski, who, somehow, shielded his family from his true work while killing more than 100 people. The film is anchored by a searing, incredibly intense performance by Michael Shannon, whose remorselessness as a hit man is as relentless as Shannon's portrayal of him.

Kuklinski works for Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), a local crime boss who's impressed with his grace under fire, which is to say, he doesn't freak out when you stick a gun in his face. Sidekicks Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) and Mickey Scicoli (John Ventimiglia) aren't convinced at first, but when Kuklinski quickly passes a rather-demanding entrance exam, Demeo brings him aboard.

Kuklinski is good at his job. Really good. He's unencumbered by conscience. His wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), suspects nothing. (Ryder is good, a better performance than she's given in a long time.)

But once, just once, in the process of conducting his particular line of work with an especially seedy sort (James Franco, born to the role), Kuklinski shows a glimmer of humanity and, naturally, it comes back to haunt him. This leads to a loosely constructed partnership with another contract killer who goes by the name Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans) because he drives an ice-cream truck.

So why would anyone want to watch something so determinedly downbeat, so unerringly serious? Because of the performances, Shannon's in particular. If ever there was an actor whose stare could bore a hole through a wall, Shannon is it.

Underneath the hairpieces and the aviator shades and the leisure suits, Shannon's Kuklinski is a man with two lives who's singular in his pursuit of perfection in both. Though Kuklinski doesn't really think of it that way. He kills people because it's his job. And he loves his family because, it is implied, that was something denied him. To him, his worlds and his choices are straightforward, if, to us, they are anything but.

Bill Goodykoontz is the Gannett chief film critic.

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