The Iceman

Posted by Michael Parsons on May 17, 2013 in / No Comments


(This review was originally published on May 17, 2013 at Reel Film News)

You might recognize Michael Shannon as the psychotic super-villain General Zod in the trailer for Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot “Man of Steel”, but if you haven’t seen films like William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter”, you probably haven’t seen the full extent of his intensity as an actor.

In Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman”, Shannon plays real-life hitman Richard Kuklinski, a mass murderer who managed to keep his profession a secret from his family until his arrest in 1986. Because the film doesn’t really delve into what makes him tick, Kuklinski could have come off as little more than Frankenstein with a handgun in the care of any other actor. But Shannon, being as enigmatic as he is physically imposing, pushes the boundaries of restraint to an excruciating degree as we get periodic glimpses through the cracks of his emotional dam. And when the levee breaks, his performance is deeply unsettling.

101151_galThe film opens in 1964 New Jersey with Kuklinski awkwardly courting his future wife (Winona Ryder). He’s clearly uncomfortable in this environment. “You look like  a prettier version of Natalie Wood,” he tells her sheepishly over dinner. Minutes later in the film, we witness him cutting a man’s throat in his car for making some insulting remarks about her. Here, he seems comfortable.

The fuse is lit early on, but it’s not until Kuklinski is hired as an enforcer by mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) that any confusion we might have about his disposition is allayed. After putting a bullet in a homeless man to prove his resolve, we see some kind of expression surface on his otherwise granite face – perhaps more Shannon’s instinct to feign some depth than Kuklinski actually possessing it – but a sign nonetheless that this character, who would father two children and remain married for two decades to an oblivious wife, has at least some range of emotions. When he finally does blow a fuse, it’s almost a relief.

Though the film remains mostly on the periphery of Kuklinki’s unstable mind, it’s fascinating to watch Shannon milk his character for all his disturbing subtleties. It’s tricky to keep an audience invested in a homicidal protagonist (e.g. “Dexter” and “American Psycho” ), and while I doubt that Ariel Vromen, who co-scripted the film with Morgan Land, expects us to sympathize with a man who committed roughly a hundred murders over a twenty-year span, he certainly relies on Shannon to keep us connected.

In a scene that suggests a perverse enjoyment of his trade, Kuklinski challenges one of his contracts (James Franco), who begins to pray for his life, to ask God to come down and stop him. Let’s just say Franco’s role is a cameo.

The-IcemanBut if the term “sociopath” were a fitting description for the real-life subject of the film, Shannon’s portrayal of him might be less easily labeled. Though “The Iceman” is undoubtedly dressed up to give the character a few qualities that may not have been  part of Kuklinski’s actual personality, he’s still a ticking time bomb with a propensity for killing (with one stipulation: no women or children), though the closest we get to understanding why comes from an angry verbal exchange he has with his brother (Stephen Dorff) who is behind bars for murder.

The ancillary characters are a mixed bag, curious but well cast. Chris Evans plays against type as a freelance gun-for-hire who makes Kuklinski look saintly by comparison; David Schwimmer looks like a ridiculous “Boogie Nights” reject playing the requisite Christopher Soprano screw-up type. Liotta is great, of course, but no surprise – he takes a lateral step from any number of his seedy mob characters, most recently in “Killing Them Softly”. And there’s the typical “Goodfellas” look to go with it, wardrobes appropriately saturated with ‘60s and ‘70s earth tones.

But “The Iceman” belongs to Michael Shannon, whose very presence onscreen keeps the suspense elevated. If we’re initially fooled into thinking that his moral compass is simply substandard, or that his being occasionally overly-chivalrous might indicate some potential redemption, it’s only because Shannon’s shy demeanor is just as convincing as his murderous stare. He’s like a lit bottle rocket trapped in a jar.


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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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