DOES the world need another New Jersey crime story on film? Probably not. But the film world at least needs an opportunity to revisit Michael Shannon’s attributes after he huffed and puffed his way through the recent Man of Steel.
He’s such a chilling actor, his over-the-top performance as General Zod opposite Superman was a disappointment. It also ate at the indelible memory of his recent performances in films including Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter.
His performance in The Iceman (MA15+, Roadshow, 101min, $39.95) restores the balance. Shannon plays notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski with an intensity and coldness that recalls the chill of growing maelstrom in Take Shelter. You don’t want to typecast the guy but he portrays men hiding impending explosions with rare aplomb. He’s a Scorsese man, not an Adam Sandler man, and a clear choice to play the Iceman.
The trouble is the character he plays in Ariel Vromen’s film, and within the screenplay cowritten by Morgan Land, is as cold as the nickname of its title character. Its story is based on Anthony Bruno’s novel, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, and a 1992 HBO documentary.
To his credit, Vromen doesn’t romanticise the gangster life in Scorsese fashion, nor is he particularly gratuitous or lurid. It’s a tough watch on several levels. It’s not comic or operatic as so many mobster movies tend to be but it doesn’t drag you down into explicit gore. The constant threat of doom is heightened by Shannon’s still, focused performance as a man who, after being arrested in 1986, claimed to have carried out 100 hits for the mob during a 20-year span.
Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography gives the film a darkness that would feel nourishing if it weren’t also combined with its desaturated colours. It is also distinguished by several notable co-stars and cameos. Chief among the co-stars are Winona Ryder as the long-suffering wife and Ray Liotta, who looks like Shannon. Liotta plays Roy DeMeo, the crime lord who provides Kuklinski with the means and forum in which to parlay his particular skills. Viewers may also enjoy a barely recognisable David Schwimmer as one of Roy’s minions and cameos from Stephen Dorff, Chris Evans and James Franco. The film, to be fair, needs them given it’s a rather strict biography and Kuklinski appears to be a one-note person, a relentless killer without light or shade. Repression as a personality trait is not the most entertaining cinematic quality.
Only the duality of his life — feared killer on one hand and upstanding family man on the other — provides contrast, so the bit players fly in and out of the film providing light around Shannon’s darkness.
Nevertheless, Shannon is so good, The Iceman becomes a little more diverting film than it deserved to be.