There are names you can depend on. Michael Shannon’s is such a name. For years now he has been raising the quality of whatever he’s in. His – sigh – ‘unconventional’ looks have generally sidelined him to parts two or three rungs down the ladder, but his obvious talents and screen presence have made him a character actor to be reckoned with. Frequently in teasingly small roles. Meaty morsels that for too long whetted the appetite for a main course.
Think of him, if you will, as Steve Buscemi was regarded in the mid 90’s. Now, of course, Buscemi is the star of the show – literally in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as gangster Nucky Thompson – but there in the background is Michael Shannon, stealing it our from under him as Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (when he’s not playing crackpots for Werner Herzog or getting pummeled by that-Superman-guy).
Just recently Shannon has been gifted some leading roles in some smaller pictures. He shone brightest in Take Shelter, proving admirably that he can shoulder the heavy-lifting of the top-billed position in a credit crawl. And now here he takes the lead for Ariel Vromen’s true-crime thriller The Iceman appearing in pretty much every single scene of the movie.
And you can depend on him. With those piercing eyes and that insular intensity, he is pitch-perfect casting as Richard Kuklinski, devoted family man and clinical mafia hitter, christened ‘the Iceman’ by the press to reflect the cold-blooded disposal of his victims. Shannon is as fiercely committed here as he’s ever been. Press clippings have mentioned him in the same breath as Pacino or De Niro in their glory days. High praise indeed, but praise that is repeatedly earned. The Iceman sees Shannon ace it again.
After setting up a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it framing device, Vromen’s movie takes us back to the mid 60’s as Kuklinkski – let’s call him Richie – goes on his first date with bride-to-be Deborah (Winona Ryder). In this first meeting Richie, though quiet and reserved, is a man we can warm to. As Tony Soprano might approvingly label him; the strong silent type. Other signifiers of the man are here in this dinner scene. His inferred pursuit of Deborah betrays a passionate side and an obsessiveness, whilst a tattoo of death on his hand is regarded with shame and regret. In a sense Richie is all there in that scene. It’s a great introduction.
He tells Deborah he’s a voice artist for Disney, when really he works in the projection booth at a porno cinema. The first of a number of significant lies. Richie has apparently always had a steely detachment, and when local mafia boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) runs into him, he recognises a man he can use. And Richie has no qualms with killing.
Anyone thinking this is going to be a fable about psychopathic emotional detachment should be prepared to dig a little deeper (but just a little), as Richie is not merely a cold-blooded machine for murder. Okay, he is that, but there is a driving force behind it. He is violently delirious in his devotion to his family. Woe betide the man who slurs his wife’s good name. And as fleeting glances into his circumstances and upbringing reveal, Richie may have been broken for a long time already.
But The Iceman must serve multiple functions, not just that of intense character study. It must also work as a gangster thriller and as a true-crime biopic. That’s a tough market to crack memorably, as both have been so intensely over-saturated for many years. You can feel the shadows of Scorsese and Coppola creeping in the corners of every frame. Vromen’s film doesn’t showboat. As a director he’d much rather keep you interested in the characters over anything he’s doing with the camera etc. However this is such well-trodden territory that a little flair is needed to truly stand out. Shannon’s piercing glare and twitching moustache aside, The Iceman simply doesn’t achieve this.
Technically it’s fine. The aesthetics of the mid 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s are rendered as artfully as you’d want them to be. The world of The Iceman feels authentic enough. The trouble is that truth may be more gripping than fiction, but it’s often not quite as original. The tropes and turns of Richie’s story are grindingly familiar, from the mafia underling trying to score big himself to the innocent family members coming under fire. Stories like Richie’s made the clichés what they are, but we’ve heard them all already. There is nothing here you won’t find somewhere else.
It also suffers from the biopic’s most regular failing and that is the sense that, in trying to capture the sum of a life, we’re merely watching the cliff notes. Some questionable writing choices become apparent. A brief flashback within our main flashback attempts to illuminate or even explain Richie’s pathology in the simplest of ways, cutting back to his childhood for less than a minute. It feels totally out of place. Whilst I’m also forced to wonder whether Richie really did take his family for a Starsky And Hutch-style car chase through back-alleys, or whether that was just sort of expected at that point in the movie?
Largely it’s the acting that saves the day here, swerving neatly around some clunky dialogue. Aside from Shannon, Liotta continues to make his bread and butter out of roles like these. He manages it for a reason – he’s dependable too. Whilst Winona Ryder makes the best of the little she’s given and Chris Evans turns up to play it a little quirky as, apparently, John Cusack’s character from Being John Malkovich (if he were a hitman with an ice cream truck). David ‘remember him?’ Schwimmer is likely to cause a few double-takes as well.
Nevertheless, by the time The Iceman gets down to it’s rather perfunctory conclusion the rot has set in and it’s a struggle to really care anymore. Richard ‘Richie’ Kuklinski killed a lot of people. He did it in a cold-blooded fashion and he may well have been the tightly wound, conflicted soul presented so effectively here by Shannon. But will you care even a teeny-tiny bit? That’s less dependable.