Thursday, September 5, 2013

THE ICEMAN: A classic that you missed

Michael Shannon in The Iceman
If Ariel Vroman's The Iceman had been made 20 years ago, it would be hailed as one of the classic mob movies of that era, alongside Carlito's Way, Donnie Brasco, maybe even Goodfellas. Hell, for all I know, it's the best crime movie since The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Instead, it was born into a low point in movie history where the biggest news of the day is usually about which overpriced actor will be cast in the next Marvel Comics flick.

The shame of it is that Michael Shannon delivered an Oscar worthy performance as Richard Kuklinski, the real life contract killer believed to have murdered over 100 people. Shannon may have turned in the performance of a lifetime as a man who reputedly has ice in his veins, yet he frets over his wife and daughters, and ultimately shows that he is not as ice-cold as the film's title would have us believe. His meltdown after being cut loose by small time mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is a graphic portrait of a man  feeling lost after losing his job, and his scene in an elevator where he bangs his head against the wall screaming "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," is reminiscent of Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta, alone in prison, punching the walls and crying. In this era where most films are cast with  former male strippers and professional wrestlers, we have to be thankful for Shannon's existence.

Early in the film we watch Kuklinski clumsily courting his future wife (Winona Ryder) in a scene that makes me want to see Shannon in a remake of Marty.   For all of his shyness, though, he has a penchant for violence that reaches back to his childhood when he tortured dogs and once beat a kid senseless with a shower rod. He had a devil tattoo on his hand, but has since covered it up, perhaps trying to destroy that part of his life. "I guess," he tells Ryder, "I was trying to look tough or something."

As an adult, Kuklinski is even more vicious. When a man insults his wife, Kuklinski cuts his throat. When Demeo offers him a job as a hired gun, Kuklinski shows an aptitude for killing that surprises even him. Soon he's making piles of money by shooting people in their cars, strangling them on rooftops, stabbing them with ice picks.  Meanwhile, he's a devoted family man, writing poems for his daughter on her birthday, letting her select his necktie when he goes to "work." We should all have such a nice home life as Kuklinski.

We get the impression Kuklinski could've been anything he wanted to be. Had he enrolled in air conditioner repair, he would've been the best in his class. He could have been a career soldier,  a cop, a stock broker - he keeps his murdering ways a secret by pretending to work in "currency exchange" - but it happens to be that Demeo hired him first. But as we've learned from other mob movies, a Polish hitman will never be "made."  This creates some magnificent tension between Kuklinski and Demeo. Kuklinski has limits, too. He won't kill women or children, and is angered to find a teenage girl hiding in the closet of one of his victims.  He lets her go, setting in motion his gradual downfall.

Shannon is a marvel. He growls his lines, but occasionally reveals a sly humor. It's startling when we see glimpses of the intelligence beneath Kuklinski's granite visage; it's like seeing a gorilla who has learned how to count. As Kuklinski, Shannon is playing a man who wants to provide for his family, but  also appears to get a thrill out of killing. He loves the hunt, he loves the drama, and he loves the tools of the trade, whether it be a gun, knife, or cyanide. That he doesn't stick to one method shows that he's sort of an artist, experimenting with different mediums. That he's comfortable killing in broad daylight shows that he has a bit of the daredevil in him. He's also sadistic enough to allow a victim (James Franco) a moment to pray before killing him.
"I'm good at what I do and I need to work," Kuklinski tells Demeo during a crucial scene. But is he only in it for the money, or is he addicted to the excitement? When he pleads to get his job back, he sounds as much like a man begging for a fix as he does a man fending for his family. Gradually, like La Motta or Henry Hill,  Kuklinski finds the violence of the workplace seeping into his personal life.  When Kuklinski's fate is revealed during the closing credits, I was saddened. Somehow, Shannon had me feeling sorry for this stone cold killer.

A lesser director would've gone for more obvious crime movie trappings, bludgeoning viewers with period music,  excessive blood, and flashy camera work. Vromen goes the other way, treating the material gently. Several times in the movie we see Kuklinski from a distance, the camera creeping up on him slowly, as if Vroman is trying to bring us right into Kuklinsky's wheelhouse, but  stopping short, as if getting too close might show us something we don't want to see. There's not a misstep or wasted shot in the entire production.

The rest of the cast provide Shannon with fine backup, including Liotta as the fiery Demeo; David Schwimmer as a troublesome member of Demeo's crew (complete with a glorious 1970s mustache);   Chris Evans as Freezy,  a killer who may be even more cold-blooded than Kuklinski; Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski's brother, imprisoned for murdering a little girl, and a reminder of Kuklinski's ugly childhood; and Ryder as the object of the Iceman's affection. Ryder is perfect, small enough to enjoy the protection offered by Kuklinski, but feisty enough to stand up to him when necessary.

There's a scene early in the film where Kuklinski, nearly choking on his own shyness, tells Ryder, "You're a prettier version of Natalie Wood." Knowing that the scene takes place in the 1960s clues us into Kuklinski for a second: he harbors fantasies about the woman who once cradled James Dean's head in Rebel Without a Cause and became a goddess for misunderstood youths everywhere. Casting Ryder is smart; she was close to being the Wood of her generation.

But Kuklinski's wife is more than just a dreamgirl. In a later scene where Kuklinski is ambushed by police, bucking like a horse as he's pinned to the ground, his real agony is not that he's being captured; it's that he's being separated from his family. His wife and daughters are the only things that keep him from being a complete monster.  As Kuklinski is taken away in a police car, the unobtrusive music by Haim Mazar suddenly swells to something like grand opera. As his wife crumbles into tears, Kuklinski only stares inwardly. His double life is over. Now he's just the lowlife he always suspected himself of being.

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