The Iceman

11 Jun

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The Iceman is a film I have been looking forward to for some time now, mainly due to the fact it features Michael Shannon in a lead role. I could bore your socks off talking about how big a fan I am of Shannon, but I’ll try not to.

The film is a dramatisation of the life of contract killer Richard ‘Richie’ Kuklinski (Shannon). I’ll admit to knowing very little about his story, so how representative of his life the film is is not something I can assess.

The story starts with Kuklinski out on a date that, evidently, goes well as the lady he’s with becomes his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder). When we first meet him, Kuklinski’s job is to dub pornographic movies. It doesn’t take too long though for him to move into the employ of Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), a criminal who needs his new employee to carry out hits for him. Kuklinski shows alarming aptitude for the job, killing people in such a cold manner and with so little regard for them that he earns the tag ‘The Iceman’.

There is one thing that Kuklinski cares deeply for though (or, more specifically, three things); his family – his wife and two young daughters, Anabel (McKaley Miller) and Betsy (Megan Sherrill). He manages to hide his job from them; instead successfully convincing the he works for currency exchange. It is clear that despite his disregard for human life, his love of his family is strong, a feeling emphasised throughout the movie that becomes a dark cloud hanging over him.

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Occasionally in film, a performance comes along that transcends mere entertainment and becomes something different; a performance of such quality and magnitude that to watch it feels like a privilege. That is exactly what Shannon produces here. We’ve seen it before from him, most notably in the excellent Take Shelter. To be invited along to another Shannon masterclass is a treat. His portrayal of Kuklinski walks a tightrope between being genuinely frightening, yet somehow sympathetic. It balances his mucky job with his love of his family perfectly. Of course, a lot of the credit for that has to also go to director Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land as his co-writer.

It’s Shannon who produces the work of genius though. He is an intimidating screen presence at all times. Vromen certainly helps with this; Shannon is a tall man as it is but Vromen regularly has the camera pointing upwards at him, instantly increasing his dominance over whomever he shares the screen with at that point. In Kuklinski’s darker moments, there are some fantastic lighting decisions, casting a half-light over part of Shannon’s face, which really highlight’s the features that help make him so menacing.

I have said many times on this blog that I always find one great measure of a performance to be how you feel when the character suffers their difficult moments. Well, at points where Kuklinski’s temper comes to the fore, Shannon loses himself so much on screen that you can’t help but get sucked into the story with him, which is a testament to his work here. You can only do that if you care about the character, and regardless of what you think of him, you will care about him in some way. There were a couple of times where I truly feared for the characters around him. I can’t really talk up Shannon’s performance enough, all I can do is recommend that you watch it – Shannon is one of the finest actors around at present and it’s wonderful to see him getting tasty lead roles like this one. He fills it perfectly and dominates the whole film. As an aside, it’s also quite something to see him having a little dance to Blondie’s Heart of Glass. Well, I enjoyed it anyway.

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Whilst it’s Shannon who makes the film what it is, his supporting cast all fill their roles adequately. Ryder is good as his unsuspecting wife, and Liotta pulls of his gangster role well. His is another performance with real grit and menace, though he’s perhaps not as scary as he could have been. I was also surprised to see David Schwimmer in this movie as DeMeo associate Josh Rosenthal. To Schwimmer’s credit, he did enough in this film to stop me shouting “Hey look! It’s Ross from Friends!” every time he was on screen (that is an achievement I assure you).

As I suggested earlier, the film is well directed. It’s always gritty and it’s intense throughout. On occasion I found that it didn’t quite pack the punch it wanted to; for example, there is an event that occurs around one character that should have much more of an emotional impact than it actually does.

For all of his good choices on camera angles, lighting and the like, Vromen’s greatest achievement is that he allows the whole story to be about Kuklinski. He never gets bogged down in trying to tell the story of any other key characters unless they directly impact on Kuklinski; he lets the whole movie rely on Shannon, and it pays off.

As you will have worked out by this point, this is a film I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend highly. Kuklinski’s is an interesting story and one I’ll be sure to do more reading on in the near future. For all it’s other qualities though, this film belongs to it’s leading man. Michael Shannon should be appreciated and valued as a leading light in his profession now. He has honed his talent to perfection and has no problem letting the spotlight shine brightly on him; he rises magnificently to the occasion and if you only see this film for one reason, it should be to witness his greatness. That, or David Schwimmer’s ponytail.

8/10

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