Michael Shannon has been knocking at the door of stardom for a while now, between a regular role on Boardwalk Empire, and acclaim for a number of memorable movie roles, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, after his turn in Revolutionary Road. This Friday, he’ll step into Terence Stamp’s pyjamas to play General Zod in Man Of Steel, but he’s currently giving another villainous performance in UK cinemas, in The Iceman.
Richard ‘Richie’ Kuklinski was a contract killer who worked with the New Jersey mob in the 1970s and 1980s, at the behest of Roy DeMeo (here played by Ray Liotta) and killed over 100 men over the course of that career. In this film, we see how he starts a family alongside this murderous work, with his wife (Winona Ryder) and children being none the wiser about the true nature of his job.
Writer-director Ariel Vromen has no sympathy or admiration for Kuklinski, and the most stirring and unsettling aspect of The Iceman is in realising that as you go along. In the earliest scenes, as he bashfully courts his future wife, he seems like a sweet bloke. When a pool hall rival makes insulting comments about his beloved, he catches up with him later on, slits his throat and walks away.
Apparently, Richie was killing for a long time before DeMeo comes along and offers him a job. He earns his nickname, the title of the film, for different reasons, but he’s more cold than cool – at several points, he’s accused of being completely unfeeling. Although the film has some interest in Richie’s childhood history of abuse, it’s bound to portray the character with as little sympathy as possible; after a short while into the film, there is no redemption in sight.
After watching the film, I went to look at Kuklinski’s Wikipedia page, and found that many of the film’s most memorable moments are actually detailed in the various sections about his life and career. In particular, he once described his most ruthless killing, in detail. Those details are faithfully recreated in a scene featuring a cameo appearance by James Franco.
That’s obviously going to be a key moment to latch onto, when creating a biopic of such a scandalous person, but it does go some way to explaining why Vromen’s film feels almost apocryphal at times. You can only do so much with the recollections of a man who variously claimed to have killed either 100 or 250 people in his career, but the flow of the narrative feels a little too smooth, while you’re in it, even though it’s a depiction of repeated, gruesome violence.
In a weird way, the film almost buckles under Shannon’s lead performance. He’s just as intense and powerful as we know he can be, but the frustration is in wanting the film to find something for him to do, other than scowl and lose his rag. He’s an imposing presence, both physically, and in the midst of a script that has more detached and clinical interests in this particular story.
The angle that makes this extraordinary should really be that Kuklinski’s family had no idea of his work – they’re the only sympathetic characters here, with Ryder giving a particularly good show as a woman who gradually starts to realise that something isn’t right in her idyllic family life, but never quite catches on to her husband’s true nature. This is more of a mob movie, and this genre has never really been known for its likeable characters.
The supporting performances range from the enjoyable (nice to see you again, Robert Davi) to the surprising (was that David Schwimmer?), but other than Shannon, the only real standout is Chris Evans as Robert Pronge, the killer who was nicknamed Mr Freezy, for the ice-cream van from which he operated. He’s a real creep, and Evans always seems hungry for a darker role than he’s had in his comic book movies.
Mr Freezy and The Iceman are typically flippant nicknames for the kind of work that these men did, and the film generally feels bound to that level of dark humour, as well as the faithful representation of events.
Ultimately, The Iceman works through these events in such a way that is not always easy to watch, but comes off as considerably easier to forget. As expected, Michael Shannon is the highlight, with Chris Evans snapping at his heels, but the refreshingly grown-up tone can’t make up for the second half’s descent into repetitive violence and arguments.
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