Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shannon's Deal: The Iceman

Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta in The Iceman

After watching Michael Shannonthe Method Dwight Frye of our times straining to pop not only his eyes but every vein in his head as the dark embodiment of helpless, neurotic super-villainy in Man of Steel, it’s kind of relaxing getting to see him settle down and play a regular, run-of-the-mill cold-blooded professional assassin, with a hundred kills to his credit, in the true-crime docudrama The Iceman. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a colorless but intense dude who, in 1964, is courting Winona Ryder and dealing in pornographic films. (He tells his bride-to-be that he works dubbing Disney cartoons, a detail that suggests a livelier imagination, and more of a sense of humor, than anything he ever gets to say or do again would suggest. He tells Ryder that his favorite job was Cinderella.) Richard also has a brotherplayed briefly but memorably by Steven Dorffwho is in prison, and who Richard has nothing but contempt for, because the brother killed a little girl. A reference in their dialogue together about having had it tough growing up, and a flashback to their father dispensing punishment with a belt, seems meant to answer any distracting questions the viewers might bring to the table about just how these guys could have gotten so screwed up.

Although Richard seems to have always had a killer’s instincts, he might never have made money off it if Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who oversees the distribution of his porno films, hadn’t gotten his schedule confused and visited him on the wrong night and then blame Richard for a delivery not being ready. Richard can’t exactly pull the requested dirty movies out of his ass, but he responds so well to having guns pointed in his face that DeMeo can’t help but be impressed. It’s like the scene in a Busby Berkeley movie where the theatrical impresario sees the goofy prop boy clowning around and realizes, hey that kid can dance! So when DeMeo downsizes Richard out of his porn job, it’s just the natural thing for him to offer a new position in the hit man department. On his tryout he squats in an alley with some due, makes a little small talk, then stabs his victim to death proves that he’s a natural, and before you know it, an upgrade in the domestic settings establishes that stabbing people in alleyways pays a hell of a lot better than boxing up stag movies.

Meanwhile, Winona Ryder still thinks he’s dubbing Disney cartoons, which shows either that she is in denial or has failed to notice that the studio was far more invested in live action movies than in animation in the years following Uncle Walt’s death. The Iceman hurtles through the years between 1964 and 1988, when its antihero was tried and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences. (He died in 2006). The only way to guesstimate how much time has passed from scene to scene is by the hairstyles, which are often ferociously seventies. At one point, Shannon goes to bed clean shaven and wakes up so refreshed that he’s sprouted a thick mustache and a well-tended soul patch. By the climax, with his slicked-back hair and goatee, he looks as if he ought to be narrating an anthology horror comic.

Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, circa goatee
The direction, by Ariel Vromen, and the script, by Vromen and Morgan Land, never gives the audience its bearings; you have to sweat to just figure out who the people are meant to be in relation to each other, though it’s usually easy to guess, based on which characters are being yelled at by Liotta or Robert Davi, who is not much longer for this movie. (The notable guest victims include David Schwimmer, in facial hair that makes his face look about a mile long, and James Franco, who gets to share the big showcase moment when Shannon tells him to pray to God, and he’ll let him live if God actually intervenes. It’s a famous moment in the true-crime lore associated with Kuklinski, though in the context of the movie and Shannon’s performance, this existential sadism comes out of nowhere.) The Iceman looks as if the director were less interested in shaping the material into something that would play and rendering it into logical or dramatic sense than in making sure that every scene is visually dark and handsome, in the great tradition of Godfather homages. (The script cites as its source material a nonfiction book by Anthony Bruno and a documentary called The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With A Killer. I’m actually not sure whether I’ve ever seen that documentary, which is sort of amazing, considering that I do clearly remember a time in the 1990s when there seemed to be commercials for its next airing on HBO every hour on the hour.)

The Iceman perks up about forty minutes in, when Chris Evans appears as Robert Pronge, a hit man nicknamed “Mr. Freezy,” because he operates out of a rickety ice cream truck, putting its freezer compartment to good use. There are so many handsome, buff young actors named Chris running around the multiplex these dats that, trained professional though I am, I need to check the Internet to keep straight which one plays Captain Kirk as his day job, which one plays Captain America, and which one is Thor. Evans is Captain America, though he’s also put in time in the movie versions of The Fantastic Four, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the action-mercenaries comedy The Losers, which I caught half of on cable one day, and in which he is a stitch; the two things his performance in that movie and his work here have in common is that in both, he’s funny, and he looks as if he really enjoys rocking the facial hair.

After the hard-to-please Liotta cuts Richard lose again, he and Mr. Freezy team up to do freelance hits on the side. Neither this plot development nor Evans get the screen time they deserve, maybe because Vromen isn’t interested in the humorous possibilities of his subject; he’d rather linger over the irony of the psychopathic murderer who thinks of himself as normal because he maintains a conventional family life, a cliché of the genre that Vromen almost seems to think he’d just thought of all by himself. Unfortunately for himand a bit better for the audience there’s always going to be something innately funny about a movie that casts Michael Shannon as a man who is taken for normal by those around him. He’s not exactly the kind of guy whose arrest in front of his house is followed by all his neighbors telling TV reporters, “They’re saying he killed somebody? Boy, he was the last person you’d ever expect…”

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment