It says something that Michael Shannon’s most sympathetic role in ages finds him playing a notorious hit man. Both in terms of typecasting and the favourable view director/co-writer Ariel Vromen takes of his subject. Those familiar with the case have found much to fault in this account of Richard Kuklinski’s activities, both factually and with regard to characterisation. But, leaving aside concerns over authenticity for a moment, this is a well-crafted, well-performed and engrossing piece of work. Having just witnessed the OTT glorification of all things ‘70s in American Hustle, The Iceman is refreshingly low key in its milieu. Instead, it’s the succession of sometimes spuriously recognisable faces popping up in a string of cameos that proves a sometimes distracting experience (a scenario that was likely all about favours and financing).
The end credits of the movie announce that it is based on The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by Anthony Bruno and the HBO documentary Conversations with a Killer, but many of the criticisms of Vromen’s approach relate to his relatively sympathetic portrait of a man who appeared to bear many of the traits of the classic serial killer. Here Kuklinski is a loving family man with a code that prevents him from killing women and children. We learn he first murdered at a young age (and that his brother is also in prison for murder) and engaged in animal torture, but this has the distance of off-screen history. Vromen works his screenplay (with Morgan Land) into a place where others are much more dastardly than the noble assassin. Most notably Ray Liotta’s despicable mob boss (one of the bigger surprises is that, for a picture evidently playing fast and loose with the facts, there is no cathartic pay off to this plot thread). Sure, Kuklinski kills lots of people and dismembers them in a bathtub, with the cool efficiency of the local butcher, but we don’t really get to see much of this. Aside aside from a montage of kills just after he is taken on, his business is mostly off-screen.
Vromen is more concerned with Kuklinski’s domestic and career woes. So wife Deborah (Winona Ryder, her most substantial role in a good few years and she more than delivers) is blissfully, and then not so blissfully, unaware of her husband’s double life. When they first meet he tells her he’s dubbing cartoons for Disney when he’s actually working on porn movies. Later she unquestioningly believes the story that he works in currency exchange. It seems a little too good to be true that, aside from one monumental breakdown scene when Michael goes the full Shannon, Kuklinski is positioned as a well-meaning father and dutiful provider. He repeatedly announces that his family is the one thing he cares about and also repeatedly reacts with extreme prejudice towards anyone posing a threat to this precious environment.
So, reading after the fact that his wife was the victim of his possessive violence from the first and lived in terror of him, it’s easy to understand the opprobrium some feel towards this movie (at the same time, with regard to the extent of Kuklinski’s notoriety, many including the police and FBI suggested his self-aggrandising account of his deeds was prone to extensive exaggeration). The end titles, announcing that he never saw his family again after he was incarcerated, are probably more illustrative than their attendance of his trial. As it stands, you can’t help but come out on his side when heavies like Liotta and Davi threaten his nearest and dearest. It might be a gross distortion, but Vromen has cleverly loaded the deck.
It’s certainly the case that some of the plot threads don’t really wash, even knowing virtually nothing of the facts behind the case. Liotta, always a reliable heavy, has Ray Demeo oozing threats to Kuklinski one moment then whinily attempting to get out of killing useless chum Rosenthal the next. It doesn’t help that Rosenthal is played by David Schwimmer; you can fully believe in Schwimmer as a loser (he’s had years of practice on Friends), and he sports a ‘70s ‘tache and tracksuit with some degree of flair, but taking out a couple of drug dealers? Nah. The unfortunate consequence of some of the starry-eyed casting is that you’re invested in a scene for the wrong reasons. Schwimmer being blown away raises a chuckle, but nnot nearly so much as James Franco pleading for his life. His contribution elicits only an “Oh look, it’s the ubiquitous James Franco!” And relief when Kuklinski shoots him. Elsewhere, Stephen Dorff isn’t nearly impressive enough of stature or presence to convince as Kuklinskli’s incarcerated older brother.
Making up for the weak or unintentionally amusing decisions are some astute ones. I mentioned Noonie, and this is the best she’s been in years, more than holding her own against Shannnon. Davi just has to walk on and do the Davi thing, he does it so well. John Ventimiglia of The Sopranas feels authentically dangerous as Liota’s right-hand man. But stealing the movie is Chris Evans’ co-assassin Mr Freezy, a longhaired psychopath whose control centre is the ice cream van he drives around. It’s a sobering realisation that the Franco was earmarked for this role until family matters forced him to take a smaller one. Evans is so good, so sleazy and irredeemable (we see him screaming at his son on Christmas Day, taking meetings in a porn cinema) you want to see the movie about this guy (who may well be a less sanitised representation of the actual Iceman type). There’s even a larger-than-life wit to his first appearance, as ACME-style he blows up the entire floor of an apartment building where both he and Kuklinski have been engaged for a hit. If Vromen had engaged more with this tonality, he might have laid himself less open to charges of misrepresentation; if you can see a streak of Looney Tunes absurdity running through the picture, fidelity concerns are given context.
Shannon, severe-faced and brooding, can’t match Evans box-of-tricks performance (it may have done his career some good, but Captain America is the worst straight jacket that could be enforced on an actor of Evans’ talents). He gets the odd moment of pitch-black humour (“Don’t take any crap from any nuns” he tells his daughter; “Yeah it can” he responds to an unsuspecting victim who pronounces that life can be “very fucking random sometimes”) and the sight of him wearing a cardigan or using a beeper has some ironic cachet (somehow, he’s also allowed to wear shades in court). The only problem is, it currently feels as if; you’ve seen one Shannon role at this point, you’ve seen them all. Can he ever surprise against the way he did in Revolutionary Road?
Even absenting myself from the case-against arguments in respect of its divergence from the true story (although where you go with a tale so full of alleged deeds rather than facts is questionable; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind territory?), The Iceman is no classic-in-waiting. But it’s well-made picture and has an acute awareness of how to successfully manipulate its audience (Kuklinski doesn’t even kill the cat, so he can’t be that bad!) It’s also a lot of fun just for the star spotting of the supporting roles, even the less successful turns.