The move purports to answer that question, at least on the face of it, but fails to be entirely satisfactory on the subject. The Iceman (2013) follows the story of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) who was a contract killer for various organized crime units in the New York area from the 60’s to the 80’s. What makes him interesting (apart from killing over a hundred individuals)? He’s a family man. Marrying Deborah (Winona Ryder) and having two beautiful daughters Anabel (McKaley Miller) and Betsy (Megan Sherrill). Against that family backdrop is the man of ice and his job killing people for Ray Demeo (Ray Liotta) and then, freelance, with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans). Then there’s David Schwimmer, James Franco, and Stephen Dorff playing roles of importance in exact inverse proportion to their talents. Oh no, you see what I did there? I put a criticism in the summary. Naughty reviewer!
Will I be the first to mention that Iron Man 3 (2013) (review) came out the same day as The Iceman (limited)? Probably not. Will I be the first to make the point that while ice may be harder and colder, iron is stronger and more utilitarian? Possibly. Here’s one that’s sure to be unique. Iron should be duller and ice more beautiful to the eye. And yet, this did not hold true. The ice presented like a hulking cube with minimal melting glisten and occasional violent pick marks. The iron was a little rusted and then seriously buffed to give both character and shine. The latter was planned to the point of over-wrought while the former just lie there in the hopes of being interesting. You may well read from my tone that this hope was not well-founded.
I had high expectations for this movie–higher than, or at least to one side of, my expectations for Iron Man 3. You have Michael Shannon, a proven quantity for the left-of-sane roles he can terrifically portray as a family man, gun for hire. The director and co-writer (with Morgan Land) Ariel Vromen was an unproven talent with two mediocrities to his name, but the premise and cast spoke of great things. There is also the strange phenomenon of a film being in limited release somehow implying that it is of a higher order than a wide release movie. Perhaps I am alone in that perception, but it is very strong. What is most disappointing about The Iceman, however, is exactly how all of these indie elements contrast so strikingly with its lack of ambition. Vromen, it seems, is content to let the story play itself out without much guidance. It is virtually identical in this respect with Pain & Gain (2013) (review). All of the elements are there, but they need to be molded into a dynamic story driven either by character or plot.
Vromen chose to drive the story by character and he got one of the best in the business to do it. There’s only one problem, your main character is the Iceman who is, by definition, wholly inscrutable. What makes him this way? Well, we get a couple lines that suggest one possibility–and it’s a lock for most likely explanation of why he’s a man of ice–but doesn’t come near to explaining his familial ties which is why we’re all interested in the first place. What makes someone a psychopathic killer is something that we all basically understand. It’s when these psychopaths show those sparks of normality that chill the blood and leave us begging for answers. Who commands your interest more: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder brother, or Dzhokhar, the stoner? With Kuklinski, we get only more questions in the form of his deep, working-class normality. I understand the character less after seeing the movie.
When did he change from the man who wouldn’t kill women or children to the man who killed friends, associates, and enemies with the same apparent caprice? He was cold, but was he ever clever? Perhaps this is where the movie and I both failed. We conflated cold with calculating. Vromen and Shannon should have played up the stupidity of the character. You don’t have to be clever to kill someone and get away with it. You just have to be clean and emotionally vacant. There is a movie, Coldblooded (1995) starring Jason Priestley, that is surprisingly good comedy and takes up that issue. In that movie, Pristley’s character, unlike Kuklinski’s, is considered a skillful murderer with the hint of a soul. Kuklinski is just a nihilist with a temper. If he were dumber, he wouldn’t be a nihilist, he’d just be shallow. A two-bit hood that happens to get a lot of work thrown his way because he’s too stupid to see the danger.
No, instead we have this heavily ambiguous figure. He’s truly and consciously nihilistic but for his family. And yet his family receives his protection from all but himself (when his natural temper flows onto them). If he were given more time to feel the heat from the mob and the police, his character’s paradox would be resolved when he finally drowned his family in the Hudson and told everyone they moved to Atlantic City. But the man’s story didn’t end that way. He got snagged in a sting so heavily telegraphed that I was sure Kuklinski knew it was coming. Shannon, for one, certainly knew it. The minute that mustache sat down across from him, Shannon had him pegged. Despite his obvious skepticism, the plot dragged him forward with a measly sum as bait. In the car, you can tell how pissed Shannon is. It’s as though he’s saying, “I told you this would happen, but you wouldn’t listen. No, I’m not getting out of this car. You’re going to have to physically pull me out of this car.”
Looking over the movie as a whole, I submit that it wasn’t sure what kind of movie to be. Is it a close-up character movie set to minimal dialogue and maximum detachment or is it a Goodfellas (1990) blend of character and theme or is it a bang bang story about a cold-hearted killer making his way? It tried them all to the detriment of all. It was close, but glossy and then gritty and realistic, reflecting each period through a seedy thematic lens. It also gloried in the kills because he felt nothing and faced no consequences but thrilled nonetheless. But it began and ended with a stylized image of a shaggy Kuklinski telling us what it was all about.
So, ultimately, they didn’t know who Kuklinski was or how to tell us what he did. Still, many will enjoy it, I suspect, if they can be satisfied by Shannon throwing tantrums.