Cinema Review: The Iceman

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DIR: Ariel Vromen • WRI: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen • PRO: Ehud Bleiberg, Ariel Vromen • DOP: Bobby Bukowski • ED: Danny Rafic • DES: Nathan Amondson • Cast: James Franco, Robert Dazvi, Michael Shannon

It’s late at night. A man, dressed in a shabby robe and sporting a cheesy moustache blankly stares at a television screen. His gaze, however, is the gaze of a man on the verge of a breakdown. That man is Richard Kuklinski, one of the most notorious contract killers in American modern history, who from 1948 to his arrest in 1986 killed over one hundred men. Yet, it’s not guilt or remorse that is keeping him awake, but rather anger and frustration at an emasculating lack of work, a state of mind that has been the cause of many outbursts of tension in his household as of late. However, even as this scene develops into a fight with his wife and Kuklinski trashing the house by knocking anything that gets in his path, it concludes with the cold-blooded killer grabbing his wife, looking into her eyes and telling her passionately how much their daughters and her really mean to him.

His wife doesn’t suspect a thing about his second life. He is such a devoted family man, loving father and caring husband, that it would be impossible for her to even think of him having an affair with another woman, let alone the fact that he may be a sadistic assassin. She believes him to be working in finance and blames the frustrations of his work for the way he has been acting lately. In a way, of course, she is right, and employment is one of the themes with which Vromen plays the most – and the way in which he plays with it in turn is one of the most interesting aspects of The Iceman which, in a bizarre sense, may be an unlikely cinematic product of the recent recessionary times.

Kuklinski is morally deranged and psychotic, yet he is also a man who loves his job, whatever it may be. He also happens to be good at what he does. He loves his job as much as he loves his family, in fact he needs them both. When Roy DeMeo, leader of a gang of the Gambino crime family played here by Ray Liotta, deems him unemployable, Kuklinski replies that he needs to work and, in that sense, he is not unlike a lot of the average men who find themselves in the same position from one day to the next. Of course, the gimmick here is that his job is contract killing, and the feeling is that by doing this he gets to fill a big void in his life. A short scene where he visits his brother in prison briefly hints at the background story of a troubled upbringing, an evil father who beat him regularly and the sadistic games involving the torturing of his neighbourhood’s pets and various animals, of which the act of tying stray dogs at the back of trains is directly mentioned. Yet he chooses to abandon his brother, regardless of the fact that he is just as bad. That is because he is unable to forgive him for murdering a twelve year old girl, something he could never and would never do himself.

The Iceman is neither a sympathetic portrait nor a redemption film. Vromen chooses to remain distant and relatively neutral towards his subject, letting the audience pick sides. Yet for a character-driven storyline, Kuklinski still feels a little shallow and two dimensional; sometimes he even feels like a weaker version of Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. His intensity relies almost entirely on an enchanting performance by a perfectly cast Michael Shannon, whose ice cold facial expressions and stiff but controlled movements dominate the film and almost make you forget the lack of emotional depth in the screenplay. In one of their first encounter, DeMeo points a gun at his face, and Kuklinski doesn’t flinch. Impressed, DeMeo tells him to kill a homeless man, a test which he passes with flying colours. Murder is something he has been acquainted with, and on his face he reacts to it in the same way as when he receives a kiss from his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder).

The “parallel lives” structure of the film doesn’t work to full effect, perhaps because it’s too frank. Yet, sometimes the juxtapositions are intriguing. One instance is particularly worth mentioning as a stand out moment in the film. After a conversation with his daughter, who questions the existence of God, in the following scene Kuklinski meets his next victim (played by James Franco in a cameo role, though he still gets top billing in some of the posters) and offers him to pray for his salvation. For the most part, however, this structure weakens the emotional depth of the movie. This two dimensional approach is something that is becoming somewhat of a trend in “gun crazy” dramas nowadays. That is why it’s easier to see them as satirical, much like another gangster film which was out earlier this year, Spring Breakers. The two films have a lot in common in the sense that there is almost a feeling of them walking a thin line between comedy and tragedy; in Korine’s film the comedy was more slapstick, and in Vromen’s the comedy is closer to deadpan. Nevertheless, both films are more open to graphic violence than melodrama and while both films hope to thrive on originality, they still make use of many character stereotypes.

For instance, even the humanisation of the villain is less compelling than Fritz Lang’s portrayal of Peter Lorre’s character in M, though an attempt to make him seem ordinary is more evident here than in other serial killer movies like Dahmer (2002). Yet this film is more impressive on a visual level than a narrative or thematic one. The story mostly takes place in the seventies and early eighties and seems influenced by the gritty and streetwise style of the thrillers by William Friedkin, most notably The French Connection (1971). From costumes to sets, the art direction is equally up to the task of making it look like a genuine period piece.

While in The Iceman a somewhat unique element of domestic drama is included, it seems that the screenplay is more interested in keeping the central character’s two lives separate and it’s hard to understand why, seeing as it could have been the film’s most interesting aspect. Eventually, the weakness in the screenplay start to show prominently and even the initial intensity soon starts to wane right up to the ending, which seem rushed and weak. Vromen’s film is carried by a powerhouse performance by Shannon, and while its visual style is full of nice touches, it can’t help but feel like a conventional testosterone and violence fuelled crime drama dressed in art house fashion.

Matt Micucci

16 (see IFCO website for details)

105 mins
The Iceman is released on 7th June 2013

The Iceman – Official Website

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