by Bill Chambers Although The Iceman proves that a movie cannot get by on Michael Shannon's dark charisma alone, Shannon has reached that point in his career where his casting supplies the lion's share of subtext. Hence, a line like "I dub cartoons for Disney"--uttered not two minutes into the film, before there's enough context for it to be a joke or a lie--induces titters of recognition. Of course, most will know going in that Shannon's playing real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who's thought to have dispatched over 100 people, professionally-speaking. In The Iceman, the film version of his life, smut-bootlegger Kuklinski starts a family with winsome Barbara (a baby-talky Winona Ryder) at the same time mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) makes him an enforcer. He keeps Barbara in the dark about his new profession (his old one, too), telling her he's a stockbroker to explain the conspicuous infusions of cash; by the time their angelic daughters are in middle-school, he's settled comfortably into the schizoid role of suburban-dad-slash-serial-killer. Eventually, he sub-contracts himself out to Pronge (Chris Evans, so skeevy I mistook him for Bradley Cooper), a free agent who operates out of a Mr. Softee truck and gives Kuklinski the idea to freeze his victims, and thus his eponymous nickname.
Shannon is good, and towards the end, as he gains the beard and receding hairline familiar from Kuklinski's mugshot, he really seems possessed by his real-life counterpart (even if he looks more like Orson Welles). Ryder adds starpower, at least, to a boilerplate worrying-wife role; Robert Davi is surprisingly authentic as a casino boss in Uncle Junior glasses; Liotta wields his voice like a samurai; and David Schwimmer, of all people, lends pathos to the role of the quintessential self-hating Jew, a DeMeo henchman who uses his boss's name for criminal transactions instead of his own, Rosenthal. But what's that subplot doing here, other than to ping against co-writer/director Ariel Vroman's Israeli roots? It feels like a remnant from a more epic draft that attempts to place Kuklinski in a larger '70s tapestry à la Boogie Nights. The task of marking the period unfortunately falls to some K-Tel classics (Blondie's "Heart of Glass") and the various costumers and moustache wranglers who've scoured the prop houses for paisley shirts and yak hair, though Shannon in a porn 'stache and Ward Cleaver cardigan is an incongruous image I won't soon forget.
The Iceman's script itself is a thing of Dollarbook Freud that ascribes Kuklinski's homicidal streak to an abusive childhood and his Scarface code of "no women, no children" to the loving, gynocentric home he's built with his wife. These things may be psychologically acute as well as biographically accurate, but they're not very compelling, and certainly not communicated with any cinematic verve. There are enough idiosyncratic moments, however, including an interesting but curiously dead-end scene where Barbara and Richard explain God's favouritism to their children, that even saddled with this screenplay a Michael Mann or an Andrew Dominik could've made all the difference in the world. Alas, we're stuck with Vroman, a mediocre talent at best, whose only stylistic flourish is to make everything as dim and colourless as possible. Programme: Special Presentation