Actor Shannon shows killer instinct in ‘The Iceman’

Chris Evans (left) and Michael Shannon in a scene from “The Iceman.”

More than most actors, including most screen actors, Michael Shannon belongs in movies. Just put the camera on that face and things start to happen. We see it all, even when the other people onscreen miss it.

A good example of this comes in an early scene in “The Iceman.” He has just hustled a guy at pool, and the guy isn’t happy about it.

First, the guy considers not paying, then he starts flinging insults. Shannon’s face receives the insults impassively. The face barely moves, yet it tells a whole story.

He lets one insult slide, then lets another go, even as he is becoming annoyed. But then two or three seconds later, the line is crossed, and you know he is going to kill this guy. Yet neither Shannon nor the director has done anything to tip you off beyond showing Shannon looking at somebody.

This is becoming a unique and significant career. It’s not enough to say that Shannon plays men in psychological pain. His area of concentration is more specific: He plays simple men experiencing complex psychological pain (torment, in fact), who are in search of simple solutions for that pain, solutions they can understand. For them, the simplest solution — the most ready, the one that’s right in front of them and ever-available because they are, for one thing, physically huge — is violence. They know that if they break something or hurt somebody, they can almost feel better.

In “The Iceman,” he plays a real-life monster, but an understandable one, whose slow and faulty thinking is available to us, thanks to Shannon’s inexplicable transparency. Richard Kuklinski was a private contract killer, in the employ of a Mafia boss for two decades, who killed an estimated 100 people. Yet his wife and daughters never knew. He came home every night to their home in the suburbs and claimed to be a currency speculator.

In this story of one man’s career, Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) starts off on the fringes of organized crime, running a film laboratory that develops pornographic movies, a job killed off by the digital revolution. When his boss, a mobster named Roy (Ray Liotta, of course), decides to close the lab, Richard is offered a better job as a hitman.

As played by Shannon, Kuklinski is a highly functional oddball, not a sociopath, not someone incapable of emotion, but someone with ice water in place of blood, so that little gets through to him. He carves up dead bodies with a chain saw like someone else might slice up a pizza. At the same time, he seems to have some vestigial moral code because he genuinely cares for his family.

One of the pleasures of “The Iceman” is in watching Liotta — as a loquacious and perpetually exasperated mobster, who sees himself as the soul of reason, and who is used to terrifying everybody — dealing with Shannon playing an almost prehistoric man, who says nothing and seems incapable of fear. It’s a vivid clash of two screen images, one long established, the other just coming into sharp focus.

Winona Ryder plays Mrs. Kuklinski, who starts off dumb and then graduates into wanting to stay dumb. Chris Evans has a chilling supporting role as a hitman so thoroughly evil that he doesn’t even seem to register the possibility of human feeling. Just being there, he makes Kuklinski sympathetic.