Release Date: May 3rd, 2013 (Limited)
Director: Ariel Vromen
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 6/10
Real life stories are sometimes more chilling than anything we could imagine, and that is certainly the case in Ariel Vromen’s newest release The Iceman. Following the history of hit man Richard Kulklinsky, the film establishes what is most stunning about the life and crimes of the man, namely, that there was a life completely separate from the crimes. A family man, romantic, devoted father and husband, Kulklinsky’s profession was completely unknown to his wife and children. By the time his arrest in 1986, it is suspected he was responsible for over 100 murders, all in connection with mob families and the people who owed them money. This film follows his development as a criminal, progressing from porn developer to hit man in a matter of 5 minutes. It’s good, people, but it’s not stunning.
What’s thrilling about this film is the story and Michael Shannon’s performance, and the film relies heavily on him in order to succeed. That is not to say that Winona Ryder’s performance as his wife is subpar, quite the opposite actually, as she is completely convincing in her role. A cameo by James Franco is fun, but brief. The major underwhelming influence in the film is the lack of connection between scenes, story, and character. It seems that in the effort to maintain the ice cold demeanor of this fascinating figure, the rest of the film is frost bitten. This subtle influence effects the way in which the director condenses stage direction, which is less concerned with believable continuity, and more concerned with direct a to b positioning (a scene where a nurse approaches from stage left to tell him his wife and new born baby girl are fine, only to lead him two doors to the right, literally 5 steps from where he is sitting comes to mind as feeling condensed and more like a play than a film). We could chalk this up to the quick and methodical cinematic approach that is often seen in a mob film, except that the plot of the mob is a tertiary focus.
Vromen has caught our attention in casting a great ensemble which includes Ray Liota as the mob boss which forces Kulklinsky’s hand in his first murder, but he also sets up certain expectations in casting one of the greatest actors from the genre (read: Goodfellas). The unfortunate part of this expectation is that you may believe you are in for a romping good mob driven plot-line. Details and believability escape Vromen, even in the setting of a true story. Mob bosses relationships and the difficulties they face in, say, offing one of their own, is strikingly reliant on a ‘because we say so’ level of story, and the emptiness in the set-up (of the narrative, no pun intended) makes it evident that plot is not this director’s strength. Mob bosses look weak, and leave us with the feeling that Shannon’s character is so much stronger than anyone else presented in the film, that there is no reason he wouldn’t just kill them all without leaving a trace. That power balance is certainly the weak link in the film.
Interestingly, the film is bookended by a confessional closeup with Shannon detailing his lack of feeling over his history. While the scene looks predictable and feels driven out of an actor’s studio aesthetic, in reality, the shots and lines are taken, in striking verbatim, from a real life interview of Kulklinsky in the late 80’s. The gum chewing, lip biting, stoic eyed giant is before the camera admitting that he only regrets hurting his family whom he so deeply loved. While The Iceman might fail at succeeding as a great film of its genre, it does succeed in establishing a focus that was incredibly important to the real life character. Mirrored in the film are shots from the same interview of his loving family seated behind him in court, sobbing at the realization that their father and husband actually may be guilty of all that he is charged with. This is something new we haven’t seen in a mob film before, and it adds a quality of life that was honored by Vromen in its making. This is not your ordinary hit man, and the film does its best to portray him. Still, the reason to go see this film is to witness, yet again, the stunning ability of Shannon to perform. A giant himself, he reveals that even when the adapted story is limited, the material you can produce with is not.