THE ICEMAN (Dir. Ariel Vroman, 2012) *
Film Babble Blog favorite, Michael Shannon was seen by millions stepping into shoes once worn by Terrence Stamp for the role of the iconic villain General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot MAN OF STEEL this last summer.
But late last spring, movie-goers got a thorough sampling of Shannon’s skills as a very different sort of bad guy in Ariel Vroman’s true story crime thriller THE ICEMAN, now out on Blu ray and DVD.
Shannon portrays New Jersey-based mafia contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who the film’s post script tells was believed to have killed over 100 people. Kulinski was called “The Iceman” because he’d often freeze the bodies of his victims so that cops would have difficulty determining the time of death (so no, it’s not like “The Ice Truck Killer” on Dexter), and because of the man’s cold as ice demeanor.
It’s a demeanor that Shannon really nails with stoic precision, and with enough charisma to woo Winona Ryder as the woman who married the murderer and had two daughters with him, without knowing how he was bringing home the bacon.
Shannon goes from working in the sketchy pornography business (he tells Ryder he’s dubbing Disney cartoons), to doing hits full time, while his family thinks he’s a currency trader.
For his third full-length film as director, Vroman has made a gritty shadowy movie that has traces of ‘70s Scorsese in its DNA, along with the grimy aura of latter day reality based true crime sagas as John McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990) and Jonathan Hensleigh’s KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011). There are many moments that this film mostly set in the ‘70s, looks like it was actually shot in that era with its grainy textures and authentic looking lighting.
Ray Liotta, still working on perfecting his Henry Hill scowl from Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic GOODFELLAS adds to the dark décor as a Gambino family crew boss Roy DeMeo (one of the few real names used in the film) who’s constantly breathing down Shannon’s neck, while Chris Evans effectively brings the sleaze as a fellow hitman, Robert ‘Mr. Freezy’ Pronge, who drives the ice cream truck the killers make morbid use of.
Shannon bounces around the streets of New York doing hits, visiting his jailbird brother (Stephen Dorff), and doting on his wife and kids, though in one wild instance of road rage, his temper gets the best of him, and he scares his family half to death chasing down some schlub who made the mistake to yell profanities at our cold-blooded killer after a mild automobile accident.
There is some strained pacing, and like so often the Carter-era fashions and facial hair looks way fake (as has from ANCHORMAN to ARGO), but these factors I can forgive.
THE ICEMAN, follows a familiar dark biopic path, but Michael Shannon’s power and intensity is well captured as this unredeemable soul who can’t help but be anything but a son of Satan, its cast which includes a cameo by James Franco, and an unrecognizable David Schwimmer (it’s true - I didn’t know it was him until the end credits) is beautifully chosen, and it’s the best acting I’ve seen by Ryder in ages.
So before you get bombarded by the big ass Superman reboot hoopla, consider taking in this more subtle piece of Shannon’s work. With this and his superb turn in Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER (Shannon also appears in Nichol's MUD still in theatrical release), the man has well proven he can carry and be the core of a very fine film. Here’s hoping the films will get finer.
* This review originally appeared in the May 30th, 2013 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer. It has been slightly written to reflect its release on home video.