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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: The Iceman (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Ariel Vroman
Starring: Michael Shannon

It's hard to believe that a film about a man who killed more than 100 people could be so dull, but here's The Iceman to prove it possible. Based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski (played here by Michael Shannon, and marvelously despite the film's shortcomings), a sociopath who eventually became a mob hitman and managed to keep his murderous double life a secret from his wife and children for twenty years, the film is a long shuffle through dates and events, never gaining anything resembling momentum and too scattered to even develop as a theme its ostensible purpose of showing that even monsters are people.

The film begins in the mid-1960s, with Kuklinski on a date with Deborah (Winona Ryder), who will later become his wife. Sometime later, once the relationship is firmly established, Kuklinski will murder a man after he insults Deborah, doing it so efficiently and cold bloodedly that it's clear that this isn't his first kill. Deborah has no idea what he's done, nor does she know that the film dubbing operation he's working for dubs porn videos and not cartoons, or that when that operation is busted up he begins working for mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). For years Kuklinski will work for DeMeo as a contract killer, murdering people in a variety of ways and then going home to Deborah and their two daughters and playing the happy family man. With them he's gentle and loving and yet, when he's working, he's as dead eyed as a zombie, carrying out his work cleanly and efficiently, concerned with nothing but getting paid. It isn't until the particularly sadistic kill of Marty Freeman (James Franco) that the delicate balance of Kuklinski's life is upended. After killing Freeman, he discovers that a 17-year-old girl was a witness and opts to let her go free. Unbeknownst to him when he makes the decision, a second hitman was also sent after Freeman for safety and that man, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans, unrecognizable for much of the film), reports to DeMeo that Kuklinski let a witness go free.

DeMeo suspends Kuklinski's contract and forbids him from working for anyone else, which means that he won't have an income to support his wife and their kids. He eventually, and secretly, teams up with Pronge, but his life is never really the same after DeMeo tries to push him out of the business. His ability to keep the two realms of his life and personality separate begins to disintegrate, leading to scenes which leave his family terrified and, after DeMeo finds out that Kuklinski has disobeyed his orders, which puts the family directly in the line of fire. Eventually it all comes tumbling down, with Kuklinski trying to kill his way out of his troubles, and then being apprehended by the police in front of Deborah who, despite one of their daughters being the victim of a hit and run which she's certain was no accident, still had no idea what her husband was up to.

To give credit where credit is due, Shannon is excellent as Kuklinski. He carries the man through the decades, and through a succession of fashion and facial hair trends, bringing a gradually increasing weariness to him, as well as an explosive intensity once his life begins to spiral out of control. For much of the film, Kuklinski is cool headed and calculating, but as the film moves towards the end, he becomes more paranoid and less careful about inflicting violence. In the film's final act, Shannon makes him seem like a trapped animal, lashing out at anything that comes near him, so desperate that you believe he'd gnaw off his own foot if it would help him get away. Shannon specializes in creepy, intense characters so the fact that he's so effective as the Kuklinski's killer persona is no surprise, but he's also terrific playing the quiet family man, the one who just wants to take care of his wife and daughters and keep them happy. You can understand why they would never suspect that they were living with a killer and why, even after a series of strange and horrible events, Deborah has such a hard time understanding why the police are taking her husband away.

There is a great deal of humanity in Shannon's portrayal, but the strength of his performance only highlights the film's shortcomings. The Iceman is a film completely lacking in personality, one which seems to want to examine how a man could be such an effective killer and such a loving husband and father, while also being utterly disinterested in either aspect of his life. His kills flash by largely in montage, and the time he spends at home only serves to break up the "work" scenes without even really adding much in the way of tension to the question of whether his double life will be exposed. There's a lack of urgency to the events as the film relates them that makes The Iceman a slog to get through despite Shannon's excellent performance and the fine supporting performances that surround him.

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