Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Iceman (2013, Ariel Vromen)

Michael Shannon takes centre stage in this biopic of the habitual killings of hitman Richard Kuklinski; a Polish immigrant, who, over the course of a career as enforcer for various mob connections killed over 100 men before his eventual incarceration. His cool, unshaken demeanour coupled with his approach to freezing his victims' bodies for an indiscernible time of death gave Kuklinski his handle as 'The Iceman'. 

But what makes Kuklinski's life worthy of this treatment? After all, cinema isn't short of psychopathic figures capable of heinous crimes to call upon, yet here we are with a film dedicated to his exploits. The real draw here is Kuklinski's balanced life between the ultra-violent and the normality of a loving family home. Here we have a man capable of unspeakable brutality, seemingly un-susceptable to guilt, and provides his unbeknownst family with loving (financial) comfort and a warm fatherly smile. The kill switch as flippant as an everyday light switch. When finally picked up by police in 1986, just a short distance form his house, his family soon found out about the cold monster they'd loved and lived with and of the blood money that bought their lives.

This look at a buried and broken psyche in the heart of a picturesque American suburbia certainly is a dramatic hook that warrants, without question, a feature length treatment. However the film doesn't grasp this dramatic hook and fails to ignite this shocking slice of life:

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Michael Shannon as Kuklinski, with his daunting physique and ability to convey much through so little. The foreboding opening shots of him, lit as if in confession, convince immediately that Shannon is on fine form (when hasn't he been?). And it is a fine performance throughout, though perhaps director Ariel Vronmen is a little too besotted with his lead actor as he doesn't lift off him enough to let Shannon's work breathe. Only through a balance between  Kuklinski's latent violence and his family (especially with wife, Winona Ryder) can the elements work to lull us into a scenario stranger than fiction. Thus this dense make-up coupled with clunky pacing and scripting gives these shocking factual events a phoney feel to them, ending up resembling a sub-par HBO special rather than the "Goodfellas-meets-Zodiac" its advertisement claimed.

The first half works best, despite a frantic dash to set the scenario up, as we follow Kuklinski into a life beside the mob. Signs of Catholic guilt frequent this half; the opening 'confession', his secret life working in a porn video factory followed by the secret of his murders. But unlike what we'd find in any Martin Scorsese film, here these aspects of sin (sex, violence, and betrayal) come up against the cold heart of a man who appears unable to feel shame or guilt. This personality defect is striking when juxtaposed with his loving family life, that he is so protective of them while being the evil in the world that most need protecting from.

At one point Kuklinski reassures his daughter, who was told in Catholic school that Vietnam was the will of God, that "God has nothing to do with it" and that there are too many people in the world for God to look over so "That's why we must look after each other". This points towards an interesting notion of protecting ones own, presuming he meant look after your immediate loved ones and let the rest fall where they may. So much of the film's events allude to a gross representation of a corporate mentality, that this man provides his family's comfort with blood money while selecting with freakish economy who he can/cannot feel empathy for. 

But as the film progresses the motives of Richard Kuklinski would have been better left as opaque, indecipherable puzzles, yet clumsy scripting either leaves these aspects undefined or forced without a hint of subtlety. Undefined, in that the lack of focus on the wife, Deborah (Ryder) doesn't draw on how much she may have secretly known about her husband's profession. Choosing to stay doubtful in a bid to keep their world from falling apart. Other aspects of Kuklinski's character are adversely dealt with in unnecessary flashbacks painting a picture of childhood abuse. And a meeting with imprisoned brother, Joey (Stephen Dorff) that tries desperately to touch a twisted family nerve but only delivers further details of their upbringing in a fountain of expository contrivances.

Despite The Iceman's failings the cast boasts some familiar faces to keep the procedural drama faintly interesting. Ray Liotta, as the first mobster to see Kuklinki's potential, acting up to his screen persona as per usual. An unrecognisable David Schwimmer is a shock as Liotta's right-hand man who gets them in hot water. But the star supporting player goes to Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy, an ex-hippy type, icecream truck driving, fellow hitman who dabbles in anything from explosives to cyanide. It's he who introduces our titular killer to the freezing process that earns his handle. It's a shame that their partnership couldn't have been bought more time to revel in such a diverse teaming of personality. Evans is a delight in the small time he's given.

Most telling, however, is the small role given to James Franco who can't be on screen for more than a minute and doesn't get much to do other than beg for his life in his hands when he is. Perhaps Franco took an opportunity to work with Shannon, being able to share a single scene may have been his plan, yet given the film's overwhelming inconsistency I'd argue this fine actor was part of a better film left on the cutting room floor.

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