Michael Shannon is descended from a long line of actors primed to explode. As with his legendary forebears — James Cagney, Robert Ryan, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino — the tension in his performances comes from an eerily controlled exterior, the anger surging beneath, and our knowledge that somehow, somewhere, detonation is on its way. With Shannon, the suspense seems even more rooted in a kind of existential disgust. His characters in movies like “Take Shelter” and TV shows like “Boardwalk Empire” chew their guts from the inside out, and their eyeballs are yellow with rage at the world’s unfairness.
In “The Iceman,” one of Shannon’s characters finally finds a way to turn this into a career trajectory. The movie is the true story (more or less) of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a hit man for the New Jersey and New York mobs who claimed to have murdered anywhere from 100 to 250 people during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. It seems likely that the real Kuklinski was a serial killer who just happened to find gainful employment. He didn’t much care whom he murdered, or where, but he was skilled enough at covering his tracks to build a suburban home life with a wife, Deborah (played in the film by Winona Ryder), and two daughters (McKaley Miller and Megan Sherrill), none of whom suspected a thing.
It’s a fascinating subject — the beast that lurks inside the family man — but “The Iceman” blows it. Director/co-writer Ariel Vromen has made a grimly passable crime drama in the sub-“GoodFellas”/“Sopranos” vein, and if you’re looking for something to order up on a slow Saturday night, it’ll do. (Shannon is never not worth watching.) But the real story here should be the many conflicted levels of a brutal man — how they connect, how they compartmentalize — and the movie just doesn’t have the chops.
What it does have is a roster of lively players, some expected and others from left field, in roles that resist breaking out of crime-genre conventions. You’d expect to find Ray Liotta here — another combustible talent, but one who never fully made it to the A-list — as Roy DeMeo, the Jersey capo who hires Richie to clean up his loose ends. John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos”) and dead-faced Robert Davi as hoods? No surprises there. But I was staring at Roy’s whining, ponytailed bagman for a good half-hour before I realized it was David Schwimmer of “Friends.” And is that really Chris Evans — Captain America himself — as “Mr. Freezy,” a creepy hippie assassin who operates out of an ice cream truck?
James Franco shows up in one scene, probably because he feels the need to be in every movie ever made, and Ryder gives her career a lift as the touching but increasingly stressed wife. That said, it’s Shannon’s show — one of the few times he has been asked to carry a movie — and he plows through the growing body count and sawed-off limbs of “The Iceman” with fortitude and nuance.
It’s a very good performance without being a great one, in part because Richie Kuklinski was a profoundly inarticulate man — he had to be in order to hold himself together — and so much of Shannon’s power comes from his voice, a cracked, intelligent whine that rises implacably toward fury. We see the strain as the parts of the Iceman’s life pull him in pieces, and in one frightening scene his wife and children see it, too, when a motorist flips Richie off and he snaps. Aside from a few pro forma nods to an abusive father, though, the script sticks to surfaces. Shannon is an actor who can invest his characters with a terrible self-knowledge, but the evidence — in this movie as in life — is that Richard Kuklinski hardly understood himself at all.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.