Hit and Miss, by David Bax
It’s kind of a shame when an actor becomes so reliably talented that his being great in a role ceases to become remarkable. Regrettably, that very thing has happened to Michael Shannon. He’s been working steadily since the 1990s in good movies but I first remember taking note of him in Sidney Lumet’s 2007 Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead where he was the terrifying but somehow kind of respectable Dex. Since then, he’s turned up regularly, giving performances of profound immediacy and depth in roles both supporting (Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road) and leading (Jeff Nichols’ vital, perfect Take Shelter). So when I say that Shannon is wonderful in Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman, it won’t come as a surprise nor will it be enough reason to recommend the film.
Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a real life figure who is reported to have murdered around 100 people during his time, many of them while working for a New Jersey criminal organization headed by Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). Vroman’s film covers the period from Kuklinski meeting his wife (played by Winona Ryder) to his arrest, about sixteen years later.
Vroman uses onscreen text to let us know when we’ve jumped ahead in the time frame but he didn’t need to since it’s all too obvious what year it is judging solely by the way the characters look. The Iceman may claim to be a character study of a cold-blooded killer but it is first and foremost a parade of wigs and costumes on notable actors. I’m convinced the director spent more time with the wardrobe department than with his head-scratchingly well-seasoned cast.
In addition to those named so far, the seemingly chosen at random cast also includes James Franco, Robert Davi, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer and Stephen Dorff. Some of those are major characters and some are only in one scene but all of them do their best to overcome the fashions, the mustaches, the ponytails, the eyeglasses and everything else inflicted on them to inject a little bit of color into the film.
Dragging the actors back into the monochromatic mud is the script, co-written by Vroman and Morgan Land. Poor Dorff is unable to shine in his centerpiece scene because he is dulled by the layer of exposition drenching his dialogue. Evans, on the other hand, is so preposterous a presence I was convinced when he first appeared that the scene was a dream sequence. The rest of what happens is boringly familiar, untransformed gangster stuff. There’s the unreliable underling whom the boss thinks of like a son or brother. There are the suspicions of ratting to the authorities. There are the clandestine meetings in cold cars. And more than anything, there’s the violent, melodramatic opera of the somberly gruesome murders, none of the weight of which are earned because we don’t have any investment in Kuklinski as a human.
Despite the script’s lack of any reason whatsoever for us to care about or be interested in Kuklinski, Shannon does a fantastic job with what he is given. He displays the dangerous imbalance of a man who cares nothing at all for anyone but his family, whom he contrastingly protects with an often inappropriate ferocity. We see the frightening but sympathetic traits of a man who tries so hard to contain his monstrous rage that it controls him. So, yes, Michael Shannon is great in The Iceman. Yet the fact remains that you can watch him be great in a whole lot of much better movies.