September 11, 2012


Michael Shannon is brilliant in ICEMAN, but it has to be said that he’s brilliant in just about the same way that he was in Take Shelter, in Revolutionary Road, on Boardwalk Empire, and even in The Runaways (although at least there he got to be funny).  For an actor who only became known to a wide audience 3 years ago in Road, he’s become typecast alarmingly quickly as the broodingly intense, possibly unbalanced guy who’s either prone to violence or barely holding those propensities back.  (His next big role, as the villainous General Zod in Man of Steel, the new Superman movie, seems unlikely to change that.)   He’s in danger of becoming the most narrowly niched great actor we have, and as strong a performance as he gives in Iceman, in a way our familiarity with him in this kind of role undercuts the whole point of the movie..

In Iceman he plays the real-life Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer (mostly for the Mafia) for 20 years, who was seemingly living an ordinary family life in New Jersey until his arrest, completely unsuspected by anyone who knew him out of the criminal world.  In the course of Ariel Vroman’s film, we learn a great deal about Kuklinski’s life (the script is by Vroman and Morgan Land), particularly his awful childhood, but he’s still ultimately a cipher.

Iceman‘s problem, especially as a Film Festival presentation, is that apart from Shannon’s performance, and some excellent work from others in the cast, it’s basically little more than a B-movie, cutting back and forth between Kuklinski’s insistently normal family life with wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and their two daughters, and his interactions with sleazebags played by such usual suspects as Ray Liotta, Robert Davi, and John Ventimiglia (as well as the more unexpected former Friend David Schwimmer).  The only surprising character is Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), a competing and then collaborating hit man who has wild hair and a fondness for much more sophisticated ways of killing people than Kuklinski’s, like blowfish poison and cyanide vapor.  Prange is so odd, and Evans is so good in the role, that we almost wish the picture could take a left turn and be about him.

Kuklinski is called “the Iceman” by the police because of his and Pronge’s strategy of freezing their victims for an extended period after death before allowing their bodies to be discovered, in order to obscure when the killings were actually committed.  But of course as a title, the name is meant to refer to Kuklinski’s emotionless visage as he heartlessly kills (but no women or children–he has a code, albeit one that allows him to work with someone who does murder both).  It’s this veneer that allows him to pass himself to his wife and their friends as a harmless currency trader, and Shannon is great at catching his cold calculations, and the stray moments of deadness in the eyes even in his most affectionate moments at home.  But in an odd way, as good as Shannon is, casting him in this part hurts the film, because at this point in his career, there’s no surprise at all that someone he plays has an inner darkness–it would be shocking if he didn’t.  Everyone’s professions of startled horror that Kuklinski was living a double life seem overdone if not disingenuous:  didn’t they see that it was Michael Shannon all the time?

This is Vroman’s first attempt at making a serious film, after two genre pictures that were direct-to-video or close to it.  His depiction of gangsters is familiar from a million other post-Godfather sagas, and he swamps the action in yellowish photography (by the very experienced Bobby Bukowski) for a period feel, and lays on the bad outfits and facial hair.  The movie is compelling, driven by the acting and the general fascination of the situation, but there’s no more substance to it than the idea that hey, a guy who seemed like a normal suburban dad was really a hit man.   If Vroman wants to really be taken seriously, he’ll have to figure out what lies beyond that.  And Shannon?  He needs to sign on for whatever Judd Apatow asks him to do.




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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."