‘…since it is summer and your only other option may be Will Smith giving life lessons to his snot nosed progeny while CGI pixels go batshit everywhere, a Shannon performance may be the best thing on at your local megaplex‘ – WatchingCattle on The Iceman.
Sometimes when I’m lying around on my silk chaise lounge with my sceptre at my side being fed grapes by a lackey in my faux bavarian castle, I’ll hear a strange yelping sound coming from another wing of the estate. I climb languidly to my feet and start walking the halls, laconically pronouncing my ladies name at a volume which offends me but should be loud enough to reach her shell like ears and elicit a response. Instead my calls are met only with silence and so through the corridors in search of the fair maiden i go, and when I do finally arrive upon her, the same scene greets me every time without fail. She will be in one corner of the room, standing, for all intents and purposes, in an erect protective ball – her demeanour that of an elongated hedgehog trying to evade certain death. Her face will be screwed into a bizarre mix of horror and absolute concentration. “Over there on the AAAAARRRGGG!!!” she’ll yelp in a tiny high pitched voice. Across the room in the farthest point possible from the good lady there will be a spider. Its size may vary (the level of terror is defined by the size and shape of the beast) but for the most part here in sunny London town we do not get spiders the size of our hands, not the size of babies hands either, no we here in this metropolis get spiders only roughly the size of thumb tacks. Furry, little thumb tacks with legs no wider than dental floss nor longer than the attention span of you fair readers. Regular sized spiders. The arachnid will of course locate itself somewhere unexpected – it will be on the lamp shade, the horrid little urchin, how dare it, on our lamp shade, of all places. Or, worse still, it will cunningly place itself directly between my dear lady and the door – blocking the only possible point of exit, save for a death defying leap from the fourth story window. The cad. The very nerve of it. Thusly my lady shall have no option but to recoil into monosyllabic near silent terror and stare directly at the spider, lest it disappear from view before my arrival and in doing so stalk the thoughts and dreams of my beloved for many a day and night to come. Of course upon my arrival the beast senses his days may be numbered and so takes evasive manoeuvres. Running with its eight legs towards cover, it brings forth shrieks of “aaaaaarrrrhhh eeeeeuuuughhh it’s moving!!!” and “catch it eeeeuuuuuggghhh” and other such instructions accompanied by long vowel sounds emitted at scarily high, almost inhuman pitches from my sweet lady. If possible I will try to grab the offending octopod and eject him from the premises without harming him, because I despise flies. I don’t fear them, I hate them. The sight and sound of them, their erratic flight paths and incredible reflexes. Why won’t they just let me murder them? Because of this hatred I respect spiders. They murder and torture flies as they consume them. What’s not to love? But since they paralyse herself in fear and should the spider prove too nimble in his attempts to escape my clutches, I do what any self-respecting top predator does… I end him. I stamp a foot down upon him, or slap a hand wildly in his direction and crush his body into a mess of its component parts…the yellow goo, tiny, ruined, hairy lump of his thorax and the flailing legs pointing out in random angles. I pick up the corpse, wipe down the site of his destruction and move on. Such is life. No Big Deal.
The Iceman is a film based on the true story of Richard Kukliniski, a mafia affiliated contract killer who is believed to have killed over 100 people. It’s directed by Ariel Vromen and features a well assembled cast which includes: Winona Ryder; Chris Evans; Ray Liotta; James Franco; Robert Davi and David Schwimmer. Yes The David Schwimmer, looking the spitting image of former Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman. How’s that for an immersion break? The titular Iceman is played by the suitably imposing Michael Shannon.
Firstly lets get to what’s good about the film. Shannon is excellent as Kuklinski. He brings his imposing physicality to the role and here, more than anywhere else, he’s completely allowed to be intense and intimidating in a way which is more controlled and deliberate than in any of his previous performances. Here he is playing a giant, cold-hearted killer and every considerable inch of him looks the part. He has the cold, hard stare down to a tee but this physicality is simply a jumping off point. Kuklinski’s real life story (which I’ll get to later) is one full of such contradiction that it’s hard to imagine anyone except Shannon having the bulk and power, combined with the lightness of touch, to manage to portray him as both human and inhuman. Shannon is utterly believable and brings a real genuine gentleness and quiet intensity to the role which holds the film together. He’s helped in this regard by the support of Ryder who is fine as the wife who has no knowledge of her husbands activities and Ray Liotta… well he’s Ray Liotta… he’s playing a mid-level wise guy and as such it’s a role he could play in his sleep. And so, in scenes where he has to play the dominant figure, who intimidates Shannon – which is no easy feat – he manages it with aplomb. In fact the scenes in which Shannon is supplicant to Liotta are some of the best in the film, and the strength of both mens’ performances make it all the more watchable.
Unfortunately, the film is stuck with a director and writer who want to make a straight forward gangster film. Again I’ll explain why I find this so problematic later but even when taken on its own merits as a gangster film The Iceman is less than the sum of its parts. As such, it is only average at best. The film begins with Kuklinski already killing men as though it were as simple a task as buying a pint of milk and already mixed up with low-level mobsters – no attempt is made to explain how any of this occurred. It then moves along at a fair old pace and humanises all of Kuklinski’s actions by focussing on the fact that his wife and family had no clue that he was involved in organised crime or in any kind of violent behaviour. This aspect of the film is actually handled rather well, and the scenes in the family home have a tone of domestic security and genuine warmth that are, at the very least, very watchable.
The gangster aspect is less successful, there is nothing here that we haven’t already seen in films like Donny Brasco, Goodfellas or any host of mid-level wise guy type fair. It’s all too cinematic. The extent to which Kuklinski killed is suggested by montage rather than any real repetitive detail and really the plot regarding how The Iceman rose through the ranks of the mob and how he made a living really isn’t that interesting to begin with – which brings me to why the film is so fatally flawed.
Kuklinski was interviewed for a HBO documentary in 1991 by Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who also interviewed Jeffery Dahmer among others. The documentary The Iceman Tapes – which you can see on YouTube – is utterly dated, occasionally unintentionally funny, fairly terrifying and pitch-blackly comic at the same time. Kuklinski, who was born to abusive parents and whose brother raped and killed a 12 year old girl, saw killing and disposing of bodies as tantamount to killing and disposing of a spider. In a slow New Jersey drawl he unflinchingly describes how he would murder and dismember people who either annoyed him or owed him money. He admits that by his teens he had already killed and severely beaten several people and when the mafia came calling he thought that this was a way to get paid for something he knew he could do. He knew that his ability to kill without emotion was exceptional – that few could manage it and sleep at night. Combined with his detached, almost inhuman attitude towards death, he was also a man mountain, six foot four inches tall and weighing 21 stone. When people describe the type you “wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley” they are describing Kuklinski. It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying human incarnation of death, unless he carried a scythe and wore a cloak. Yet virtually none of this makes it into the film in any meaningful way. Vromen’s film is too concerned with the facts of the case, so to speak, to be bothered with exploring the more interesting story. This man murdered and tortured people day and night and then returned to his wife and children. So little of his working life spilled over into his home life that it was a shock to his family and friends to find out that he had murdered so many. If you consider your day to day life it seems utterly surreal that it is possible to compartmentalise so cleanly. Let’s say you work in an office – chances are some of your day to day stresses come home on your shoulders every evening. Yet this man killed and dismembered humans. It’s mind boggling. Far more than a gangster movie, any film about Kuklinski should deal with his childhood, his early steps into murder and eventually his everyday life as a full time professional killer. His story has, in many ways, more in common with that of a childhood footballing talent who gets spotted by a large club and signed up to play in the big leagues. On the other hand he isn’t a sports man, he’s a murderer. On a daily basis this man kissed his wife and kids goodbye, then went to a shop he had rented and cut up human remains to dispose of them. Either part of this could have made a whole feature in its own right, but unfortunately the film tries to be too “total” in its approach and in its attempt to humanise Kuklinski, it goes a little bit too far. In doing so it’s never quite brutal or lurid enough to be genuinely affecting.
Kuklinski’s life must, in some part, have been part of the genetic make up of the character of Tony Soprano. This unfortunate for the film as The Sopranos is a masterpiece and its exploration of the dichotomous life as criminal and family man is so deep and full that there really is little left to say on the subject. In fact, for a more full exploration of the main themes which should be present in The Iceman, one could simply watch the episodes of The Sopranos entitled College or The Second Coming.
What could and moreover should have been Snowtown meets Goodfellas meets The Brady Bunch, instead comes across as The Departed meets True Lies and it’s a great pity. Towards the end of the film Shannon plays out a scene which appeared in the documentary. It’s uncanny how close his performance is to the real footage and yet the film version is lit far too cinematically. It does not resemble the source material in any way. This is a fair microcosm of what’s wrong with the film as a whole. Far too mainstream in it’s intentions, too unbalanced, too focussed on the popcorn sales, too hasty, unambitious and too wrapped up in what happened rather than how or why the events transpired. The Iceman never gets under its subjects skin and therefore failed to get under mine in the same meaningful way that the documentary did. This is an average film raised slightly by some excellent performances and yet another brilliant one from Shannon. Perhaps that’s not quite enough to really recommend it, but since it is summer and your only other option may be Will Smith giving life lessons to his snot nosed progeny while CGI pixels go batshit everywhere, a Shannon performance may be the best thing on at your local megaplex.