Review: The Iceman (TIFF 2012)
PLOT: The true story of hit-man Richard Kuklinshi (Michael Shannon)- who allegedly killed over 100 people at the mob's behest, while simultaneously existing as a devoted family man with a loving wife (Winona Ryder) and two adoring daughters.
REVIEW: THE ICEMAN is a film I've been hot to see for a long time. Anyone who's seen the Kuklinsky documentary from a few years back can attest to what a chilling sociopath the guy was, and casting of Michael Shannon, one of the best actors of his generation, in the part seemed ideal. It ended up taking years for the film to get rolling, with the cast list changing here and there, although a short demo released on youtube featuring Shannon in character gave me hope that it would eventually get made.
And so it did, and the result is a strong gangster melodrama anchored by an absolutely startling performance by Shannon. Certainly, Ariel Vromen's movie, which runs a contained ninety minutes and keeps the focus sharply on Kuklinski, won't be mistaken for one of the all-time gangster epics, but it's certainly a superior piece of genre entertainment.
The action starts up fast, with us barely becoming acquainted with Kuklinsky, who's introduced on his first date with soon-to-be-wife Deborah, before we see him slit a guy's throat for a minor insult. It's obvious early on that Kuklinsky is an utter sociopath, although one with limits- primarily that he won't kill women and kids, mostly due to his own love for Deborah and his daughters. Whether or not Kuklinski's was in fact the doting father depicted on-screen, his happy home life makes a sharp contrast to his blood-soaked work for insecure mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta, the go-to guy for roles like this), and his handlebar mustachioed lieutenant, played, of all people,by a nearly unrecognizable David Schwimmer.
After botching a hit, Kuklinski finds himself strapped for cash, and thus- hooks up with psychopathic killer Robert Pronge- played, behind loads of facial hair, by a strongly effective Chris Evans. The two become the city's number one pair of contract killers, using cyanide spray in one scene to silently whack a disco-dancing gangster, while Pronge also freezes bodies in his ice cream truck- for future disposal, giving Kuklinski his trademark handle.
The best thing about THE ICEMAN is that Vroman keeps the focus squarely on Shannon as Kuklinski, with him barely ever leaving the screen. This is essential. Shannon's performance is a perfect contrast to his “other” family man part, in last year's TAKE SHELTER. Shannon, who, lets face it, is a scary looking, intense guy- surprisingly has a knack playing doting dads. While he's a merciless killer- you can't help but kind of like Kuklinski, although a killer scene opposite Stephen Dorff as his incarcerated brother suggests that his family man persona might be just another act, as he sometimes comes off like the Chauncey Gardener of gangsters. Certainly, this possibility is explored once he throws his family into a scary car chase after being the victim of an inconsequential insult, or during his big kitchen breakdown opposite Ryder- who, in this scene, finally gets a sense of the true nature of the man she's sharing her life with. Kuklinski's utter lack of sympathy or remorse is also explored in a scene opposite cameo-ing James Franco, where the latter begs and prays desperately for his life- to Kuklinski's amusement.
A film as dark as THE ICEMAN can sometimes be a hard sell, but I'm pretty sure that THE ICEMAN will get a decent release sooner or later- with Shannon's profile about to get a big boost with MAN OF STEEL. It's a damn entertaining gangster yarn- and one that's all but guaranteed to pick up a cult following, as Shannon's performance is in the same league as other genre baddies, including Al Pacino in SCARFACE or Christopher Walken in KING OF NEW YORK. Hopefully he'll get more lead roles, as he's one of the most intriguing actors to come along in a while.