Michael Shannon and supporting players turn in solid performances in The Iceman. Is that enough to make a movie about a remorseless killer worth watching?
Michael Shannon, like many big names before him, seems to be enjoying some time in the spotlight after years of being a recognizable face in the background. Working his way up from bit parts in films of the early 90’s (Groundhog Day comes to mind) to some weightier supporting roles and on into the occasional leading man position, Shannon’s ability to bottle up, shake around, and unleash his brand of fury on screen is starting to earn the man some recognition.
The Iceman sees Shannon embody the role of contract killer, and self-professed murderer of over 100 people, Richard Kuklinski as he raises a family on stage and kills for money behind the scenes. The movie doesn’t make it clear if Kuklinski only killed for hire (doing various jobs for mafia-type families), but it hints that the man would end someone’s life for the slightest offense or a wrong look which makes for an eerie juxtaposition to the happy life he has at home with a wife and two daughters. I don’t know if we’re supposed to feel empathy for the man when he’s around his family or if we should be uncomfortable that we’ve just seen him slit a man’s throat and come home without giving it a second thought, but I think the moral ambiguity at times is beneficial to the film.
Throughout The Iceman I found myself comparing it to the Johnny Depp cocaine movie Blow speckled with a light seasoning of the Ryan Gosling atmospheric piece Drive. The dark tones and faded colors combined with the casual gangster undertones of Blow were present throughout, and even the arc and end of the storyline felt familiar. That said, at times I enjoyed the similarities (the nostalgic yet unforgiving nature of the era, the strong performances by impressive cameos and key players, the tension and thrill of a job well done that we share with the main character), but at other times I felt I already knew what was coming as the parallels progressed.
Shannon’s Kuklinski, when alone with his wife or enjoying a night in with the entire family, is quiet, sincere, and confident in his coolness, much like how I’d imagine Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive might turn out if he stayed in the business for another 10 years and had a few kids. Kuklinski’s time at home is actually pretty precious, and aside from one or two outbursts when things start to spiral downward it’s pleasant to watch the family interact. When he starts freezing bodies and disposing of them months later, earning him the nickname “The Iceman” in papers and on the streets, he’s also trying to enjoy Christmas mornings and his kid’s birthday parties. This makes for an honest and heartfelt disconnect when Kuklinski’s work starts to follow him home, and much like Blow I felt the weight with him as relationships stretched and eventually broke.
I’d be doing the film a disservice if I didn’t mention how well the small and supporting roles were filled by some seasoned talent. From Kuklinski’s wife (a refreshingly vibrant Winona Ryder) to mob boss Ray Liotta, an at-first-unrecognizable David Schwimmer, and a 70’s wild man ice cream truck driving Chris Evans all the second tier players were impressive, solid, and fun in their own way. When a slimy James Franco comes and goes in a matter of a few minutes, or we take a five minute trip to prison to visit a behind-bars Kuklinski brother Stephen Dorff, it’s hard not to appreciate everyone involved.
While not a fantastic film The Iceman is a solid one worth seeing for the performances and atmosphere. If anything it’s a film that paves the way for Michael Shannon to continue climbing the Hollywood ladder in impressive ways. Here he’s surprisingly subdued, and those hoping to see an off-the-hook maniac will be pleasantly surprised by the subtleties and calm mannerisms he displays. After watching Shannon silently kill people in the shadows I’m looking forward to seeing him oppress humanity as Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel, and until then The Iceman is a pretty decent fix for fans of the man.