The Iceman, the new crime drama from Israeli director Arial Roman, is incredibly acted and beautifully shot. But it also embraces evil in a way bound to both challenge and disgust fans of the traditional gangster movie.
The film tells the story of real-life hitman Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon). When gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) shuts down the porno company Richie works for, he offers Richie a new job as a contract killer. Richie acquires a taste for the work and for the money it brings, which he uses to dote on his loving and naÃ¯ve wife Deborah (Winona Ryder).
When Demeo orders Richie to lay low for a while, though, the money runs out, so he starts looking for other employment opportunities on the side with a dangerous rival hit man known as Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans). With Richie hoping to save up enough money to get out of the game and move his family to Atlantic City while his work gets more and more dangerous, it's a race against time until the fireworks start going off.
The cast shines. Michael Shannon is simply unearthly as a killer"”his eyes are truly cold as ice; his delivery is perfect"”he will scare the shit out of you. Shannon communicates much with few words, and this movie is definitely going to open some major doors for him. But the supporting characters are where the joy is"”Ray Liotta is Ray Liotta; Chris Evans is hilarious as a long-haired unkempt killer who runs an ice cream truck. Winona Ryder captures the willful naiveté of Deborah's character perfectly.
But two brilliant minor appearances deserve special mention: David Schwimmer as the greasy, pony-tailed, tracksuit-wearing weasel-y little thug Josh Rosenthal. Seeing Ross from Friends go through with a coke deal is an unforgettable experience. And of course, James Franco manages to make it into this as a lowlife pornographer.
The film looks great, too. There are lots of stark, Caravaggio type shots"”eerily drawing a sharp line between good and evil, surprising for a world in which there's little good to be found.
And that is precisely the crux of the film"”Kuklinski, by the end of the movie, is one unlovable bastard. Gangster movies never star knights in shining armor, but the protagonists are usually driven by values that the audience likes. Vito Corleone doesn't start out as a gangster but becomes one out of family loyalty, and the conflict of the film is between rival gangster families as opposed to between gangsters and helpless innocent people. And usually the gangsters are presented as having some sort of "honor among thieves" mentality. Sure, they're killers and dealers, but they at least baptize their babies and don't kill women and children"”that kind of thing.
And Kuklinski starts off with some of those elements"”he's a real softy for his wife and kids; he refuses to kill girls, that kind of stuff. But the vestiges of his humor and moral code are stripped away as he becomes willing to sink lower and lower and becomes hungrier for that next kill.
There's no martial quality to his kills"”no shootouts with other gangsters. Just murder, straight up. And when he finally loses it and flips out at his wife, there's a definite turning point in how the audience views him; we realize we've been "rooting for" or asked to empathize with someone with so few redeeming qualities that we feel disgust towards them.
At the end of the film Kuklinski says, "I've never felt sorry about anything I done, other than hurting my family. I'm not looking for forgiveness, I'm not repenting." And yet there are subtle moments in the film where the Iceman cracks and his brokenness looks him in the face. He tells his kids that God doesn't care about human beings, but at one point after a kill mutters "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" in an elevator"”an underplayed moment where he perhaps appeals to the God he denies is present.
So what Ice Man does is present someone so disgusting that, at some point, you go from kind of liking this messed up mofo to being shocked and disturbed by him. And once the story makes him into a full Mr. Hyde monster, that's when we see Kuklinski scoff at the few, almost invisible, rays of hope that could bring him back into the audience's good graces and save his soul.
So don't expect Kuklinski to be a gangster you'll be able to sympathize with. But the challenge of Ice Man is that perhaps we should be feeling for him"”a test of the hearts of the audience"”to see who will hope Kuklinski escapes his bloodlust even when he stops being funny and charming.
I'll be straight up"”I failed that test. And if I had written this review right after seeing the movie, I would have just called it a depressing moral outrage of a film because I like movies with good guys and bad guys. But with some time to think about things, Kuklinski becomes reminiscent of Satan in Paradise Lost where pure evil is offered up as someone to empathize with.
I'm still working through the moral implications of that, so if you like well acted movies that make you work through moral implications, then this could be fun for you. If you're a fan of traditional gangster movies though, you might want to give this a miss.