Michael Shannon will cut you up (The Iceman review)

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The Iceman yellow light Michael Shannon

I’m “biast” (pro): love Michael Shannon; love mobster flicks

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The true story of Richard Kuklinski is utterly horrific, and utterly compelling. A vicious enforcer for the mob in the New York area for two decades between the 1960s and the 1980s — and likely even a more traditional sort of serial killer before that — he murdered more people than we’ll probably ever know about; he even claimed to have offed Jimmy Hoffa! All the while, Kuklinski maintained a totally normal suburban lifestyle with a wife and kids who never knew what he did for a living. They even liked him at his church.

Even knowing what we know about how charming and likable the most sociopathic violent men can sometimes be, it’s hard to fathom how no one copped on to the truth about Kuklinski. Did his wife, Barbara, actually know — or at least suspect — and fooled herself into looking the other way? Just how convincing a performer was Kuklinski?

Alas, The Iceman — based on the copious interviews Kuklinski gave from prison, where he died in 2006 — barely even broaches this great mystery. It’s not that it actually avoids the matter, either, however: there are indeed a few scenes of happy family life interspersed with the great horrors Kuklinski perpetuated. We simply never understand how the two halves of this man’s life could possibly have fit together.

Alas for poor Wynona Ryder (Frankenweenie, Black Swan), who portrays Mrs. Kuklinski, here renamed Deborah because Barbara Kuklinski, who is still alive, wanted nothing to do with the production. Ryder deserves a meaty role and is denied it here, as if all-but-novice screenwriters Ariel Vromen (who also directs) and Morgan Land saw no reason to actually examine how or why a woman could be so clueless and/or self-deluding. (The real Mrs. Kuklinkski has hinted at violent physical abuse in the relationship, but the one quick scene that depicts such in the film pops up from nowhere and instantly recedes, forgotten, into the background.) The untold story here would seem to be hers, or perhaps how an apparently “normal” and “happy” home life either helped or hindered Kuklinski in his work.

Instead we get an oft-told tale, though one that does come alive in a few places that make it worth a look. The always electrifying Michael Shannon (Premium Rush, Machine Gun Preacher) as Kuklinski enjoys what may be the fullest expression of his smoldering onscreen rage yet. James Franco (Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) appears briefly as one of Kuklinski’s victims, and his one scene is the single most gripping in the film for its contrast between how a feeling person faces death and how a robotically cold one deals it out. (I can’t wait to see these two magnetic actors together again onscreen for more than just a few minutes.) Chris Evans (Avengers Assemble, What’s Your Number?) has a bit more screen time as another killer Kuklinski teams up with later in his career, and there’s an appropriately uncomfortable pitch-black comedy in their teamwork.

Even at its most watchable, however, The Iceman feels like a pale imitation of GoodFellas… a film that did seamlessly blend a violent man’s work and family life. (The comparison is nearly unavoidable, what with Ray Liotta in a small role as a mobster here.) There’s a whole half of the story missing from The Iceman, and without it, this isn’t just cold but sterile in ways it shouldn’t be.

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Fri, May 03, 2013 10:20am

I think what may be needed is someone to point out “all right, we’ve done cop pictures and gangster pictures – let’s not do another one unless we’ve got something interesting to say”. Except that someone else would mention that the generic ones with nothing to say still make decent money, so why take the risk?