Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 15 May 2013
Source digital projection
Categories The 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston
A couple of decades ago, many directors might have put Christopher Walken at the top of their lists when scouting potential actors to play the part of a coldblooded hitman leading a double life as a seemingly ordinary husband and father. Walken is often an intimidating presence, but he’s capable of disarmingly human moments too. (Just check out last year’s brilliant Seven Psychopaths.) Gifted actor Michael Shannon is no Walken knockoff - he has his own unique set of idiosyncrasies - but he does have that same capacity for infusing frightening characters with genuine humanity, perhaps most memorably on Boardwalk Empire, where he’s been weirdly compelling as corrupted IRS agent Nelson Van Alden. All of which is to say that director Ariel Vromen found a fine actor to play the part of real-life mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, who for years kept his family in the dark about how he made his living.
The Iceman traces Kuklinski’s story from his early days of courting his wife Deborah (and casually murdering people who’ve angered him) to his eventual arrest, and it seems particularly interested in Kuklinski’s duality, seeming to wonder time and again how a man could tenderly feed his baby daughter, or write a sweet-but-awkward birthday poem for one of his girls years later, while also meting out brutal violence at the request of the mob. Like other movies about real-life violent criminals, such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson or even Richard Linklater’s Bernie, The Iceman raises the question of whether true crime stories make for entirely ethical source material, but even setting that question aside (since most of us are probably Goodfellas fans), The Iceman’s narrative poses other issues.
While I find the dichotomy between leading a relatively peaceful family life and enacting calculated and sometimes cruel murders to be absolutely nightmarish, I also can’t say that The Iceman covers much new ground. If you’ve seen, say, the famous baptism sequence in The Godfather, you probably have a general sense of The Iceman’s primary thematic concerns. And many of the salient factors in Kuklinski’s early life — an abusive father, a brother convicted of rape and murder — are touched on only superficially here, making the brief references to them more distracting than illuminating. While the film’s setting and subject is redolent of Mike Newell’s excellent Donnie Brasco, Newell’s film provides the more nuanced character study.
Nevertheless, the drawing card for The Iceman is probably its cracking cast — that’s why I went to see it — and the performances are quite strong. Shannon has a wonderful face for an actor, distinctive and capable of just the right tics. In this film he knows when to dial it back and when to be explosive. Winona Ryder is also excellent as Deborah, the naïve Jersey girl who falls for Kuklinski. For those who’ve missed seeing her onscreen as much as I have, The Iceman provides a nice chance to see her turn in a fine performance. The film is at its most harrowing when Kuklinski’s two distinct worlds bleed into each other, particularly when the erstwhile hitman begins smashing up his family’s kitchen, and Shannon and Ryder both bring a fierce reality to that scene of extreme domestic distress. Elsewhere, Chris Evans is miles from Captain America as Kuklinski’s fellow hitman “Mr. Freezy,” but he’s fully in-tune with the sick humor intrinsic to the role. And while Ray Liotta doesn’t have to do much besides glower as mobster Ray Demeo (his recent role in The Place Beyond the Pines has more substance), the man does give good glower.
Though the cast elevates it, The Iceman does interpret its bizarre true story as relatively conventional gangster fare, with a few moments (including Kuklinski’s inevitable arrest) that feel somewhat overwrought. It’s the kind of film that cuts together into a great trailer, and makes for decent company on a rainy afternoon, but it doesn’t do much to unseat our expectations.
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