Sometimes it’s the performance that makes a film. Off-the-top-of-the-head example: ‘Primal Fear’. An aesthetically redundant, narratively yawnsome courtroom drama transformed into something utterly watchable thanks to Ed Norton’s breakout role.
Notwithstanding that ‘The Iceman’ is an infinitely better crafted film than ‘Primal Fear’, much of it has the tang of the perfunctory while director Ariel Vromen never fully succeeds in engaging with the story’s key dynamic. Based on the true story (and if those words at the start of a movie don’t sound an alarm bell, then you’re probably a lot less jaded a film-goer than I) of hitman Richard Kuklinski, the story starts in 1964 with the inexpressive Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) having coffee with naïve girl-next-door Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder, so not getting away with playing a twenty-something in these early scenes). Later, at a pool game, an acquaintance refuses to pay Kuklinski off over a bet then compounds the offence by making ugly remarks about Deborah. For which he ends up with his throat cut in an alleyway. Shannon plays this pivotal moment to perfection: there’s a moment when he genuinely convinces you – never mind that you’ve just shelled out for a ticket to see him playing one of the most notorious contract killers of his time – that Kuklinski might just let it go and walk away. And when he does walk away, albeit after effecting a straight-razor/jugular interface, the sense of dispassion is shattering. It’s one of a handful of moments where Vromen absolutely nails the tone he’s looking for. He’s not quite so successful elsewhere, though.
Jump forward a couple of years – the first of numerous and often inelegant lurches through a two-decade timeline – and Kuklinski and Deborah are married, with a baby daughter and looking to better themselves. Kuklinski’s working on the periphery of the criminal underworld, cutting film and delivering prints for a low-rent pornographer. A disagreement over a delivery date spins him into the orbit of mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). Impressed by how little fear/emotion/give-a-shitness Kuklinski evinces in the face of his goons, Demeo hires him on the understanding that he works for no-one else. Kuklinski takes to the work like a duck to the proverbial. He doesn’t seem to relish killing, but it doesn’t bother him either. It’s just something that he happens to be very good act. Dude loves his family – “You and the girls,” he tells Deborah during the closest he comes to an emotionally-charged scene, “are the only thing I care about in this world” – but as far as the rest of humanity is concerned, he’s utterly cold. Ergo, the iceman.
After a brutally effective Kuklinski-straight-up-kills-a-fuckton-of-people montage, Vromen gets bogged down in the minutiae of underworld politics, mob hierarchy paranoia, rivalry, betrayal and bad decisions. It’s the kind of milieu that Scorsese or Coppola would sail through, sketching out the interrelationships and knife-edge tensions in a scintillating whirl of exposition of set-piece. Vromen isn’t quite in their league and there’s a palpable sense, as events snowball in the largely 70s-set mid-section, of the script stumbling and gasping for breath as it tries to keep up with everything. By now, Demeo’s fuck-up of a right hand man Josh Rosenthal (an almost unrecognisable David Schwimmer) has incurred the ire of another outfit whose consigliore Leonard Marks (Robert Davi) is putting pressure on Demeo to cut the kid loose (in the terminal sense of the word); Demeo’s pissed off at Kuklinski for not killing a witness (a 17 year old girl – his daughters are by now teenagers themselves); and Kuklinski, essentially unemployed, has teamed up with ice-cream van driving hippie assassin Mr Freezy (an equally unrecognisable Chris Evans) to pull in enough money to keep his family in the style to which they have become accustomed. Oh, and there’s also some business about Kuklinski’s nutcase brother Joey (Stephen Dorff), in prison for killing a young girl.
Buried in all of this is the film that the tagline on the poster – “loving husband, devoted father, ruthless killer” – hints at. Because here’s the fascinating thing: when the Feds arrested him after an undercover agent netted him in a classic bit of entrapment, his family genuinely had no idea that he was a mob-employed enforcer who had killed over 100 people. No idea. And if the mechanics of how an essentially amoral hitman not only kept work and home life separate but maintained a façade of domestic normality for two decades isn’t a great concept for a movie then I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, Vromen is too busy leaping through the chronology (not that the film even considers the real Kuklinski’s already notable criminal activities during the 50s and his association with the DeCavalcante crime family that pre-dated his involvement with Demeo) to focus on this aspect. The script throws out a few lines about Deborah thinking that he works in investment banking, and the whole family man persona is dramatised by means of his daughters hero-worshipping him (why they venerate him is never contextualised).
So why – with the mission statement of this blog being the love, not the criticism, of film – am I spewing 1,000 words on ‘The Iceman’? Three reasons, really. Firstly, its emulation of slow-burn 70s filmmaking is a welcome respite from the flashy tentpole nonsense that has dominated the screens of my local multiplex recently. Secondly, it looks great: akin to Roger Donaldson’s ‘The Bank Job’ and Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, it’s a film predominantly set in the 70s that both looks and feels like it was made in the 70s. Thirdly, the performances. There’s an entire cluster of great performances, with Shannon’s towering slab of subdued greatness at the centre. Liotta, in a career based on casting directors exploiting his iconic role in ‘Goodfellas’, is as engaged as I’ve seen him since that movie. Sure, he’s doing the same old gimlet-eyed Liotta shtick, but here it seems authentically dangerous. Davi does his best work for a couple of decades, and Schwimmer and Evans physically lose themselves in their characters in a way I would never have anticipated from either of them.