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The Iceman: Acting Can’t Save Structural Issues

By Tony LaScala · May 6, 2013

Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) continues to add to his impressive list of fascinating character studies in The Iceman, a new biopic about a ruthless contract killer from up and coming writer/director Ariel Vromen (Danika, RX). While the film offers a cast of dedicated character actors and a riveting concept, it tries to cover a lot of ground and leaves us with just a taste of the seedy mob business without ever diving fully in.

Based on a true story, The Iceman follows Richard Kuklinski’s (Michael Shannon) balancing act of a life as a family man/ruthless killer that successfully manages to keep his personal life separate from his professional for several decades. When he refuses to kill a teenage witness to a crime, his professional life spirals out of control and he struggles to keep his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and two teenage daughters, Anabel (McKaley Miller) and Betsy (Megan Sherrill), from getting caught in the crossfire. Richard has to make some questionable decisions that will ultimately doom him but save the only thing that he holds dear: his family.

Hollywood is full of gangster films, and most attempt to capitalize on past box office hits like The Godfather. Usually these duds are cheap knock offs, focusing on the action sequences, sex, and drug use but avoiding a story of any substance. Every so often a movie takes an alternative route (The Departed) and focuses on a terse character driven drama that oozes tension and suspense. The Iceman offers the dichotomy of Kuklinski: ruthless at work, loving and devoted at home. It’s a strong character study of a man capable of coldly killing with little remorse or sense of compassion on Fridays, who can take his daughters to their dance recitals on Saturdays. But the film struggled to draw me completely in because of the multi-decade arcing story.

The screenplay overwhelms the senses with its gigantic timespan and subplots and leaves too many loose ends at its conclusion. I followed several storylines, that while interesting, had little or nothing to do with Kuklinski and as a result I was shaking my head trying to figure out why the screenwriters chose to include those sense while leaving out other relevant lines that would have bolstered the film. It wasn’t until I was nearing the mid-point of the film that I was fully attached to the predicament that ‘The Iceman” had gotten himself into, but by then I had enough questions to pull my focus that I was always playing catch up. However, in its individual storylines (specifically the fallout from Shannon’s decision not to kill a witness) screenwriters Vromen and Morgan Land (RX) weave a tangled tale of the struggles of lower middle-class gangsters trying to survive in a world where the puppeteers (the Bigwig gangsters) are calling all the shots and leaving Kuklinski to clean up the mess.

Shannon balances the two sides of his character superbly, and it is in the scenes where the two alter egos collide that Shannon’s commitment to his craft stands out. One such explosive scene occurs after Deborah accuses him of selfishness that he loses it, going on a rampage through his house and destroying some of the material things that his self-demonizing profession has provided for his oblivious wife. With his icy glare Kuklinski gazes into the souls of his victims and judges them for their faults, sentencing them to a quick and violent death. The morality of Kuklinski’s profession is never unjustified, as in his characters mind every brutal act performed is done to provide for and protect his family, and therefore he can do no wrong. Only when his family’s lives become endangered does Kuklinski realize the error of his ways. He holds no regrets for the people whom he’s killed, or the lives that he has ruined; even his own. But there is a moment that he will never escape from in the end, and this range of emotions Shannon portrays with a simple twist of the head, a sniffle, and an unflinching twinkle of the eye.

The supporting cast is not to be missed. Ryder plays the ignorant-by-choice supporter to her husband Richard, and earns her acting chops as the counter in the aforementioned explosive scene. Ryder goes through a range of silent emotions, ultimately deciding to stand by her husband despite his faults and continue to remain ignorant of his crimes. For myself, one of the breakout performances of the film belongs to Chris Evans (Captain America, The Avengers) in his unrecognizable portrayal of hit man Mr. Freezy, an ice cream truck driving killer with even less remorse that Kuklinski. Rounding out the cast are mob movie veterans Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Hannibal, Field of Dreams, The Place Beyond the Pines), John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos) and Robert Davi (Die Hard, Goonies, License to Kill). Each could have just phoned their roles in, they’ve played these types of characters a ton of times. Liotta surprised me the most, as he flip-flops between empathic gangster and hated villain. Even the smaller roles were fascinating, like David Schwimmer’s (Friends, Madagascar) portrayal of self-hating Jewish gangster Josh Rosenthal. Even James Franco (127 Hours, This Is The End, Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Planet of the Apes ) makes a darkly comic cameo.

The film had moments of brilliance brought on by its cast (specifically Shannon). But as a whole the movie was above average, possibly even good. Greatness slipped through the fingers of the filmmakers, most likely because they tried to show too much. As a character study The Iceman is a killer, but as a screenplay it choked.