What more could we possibly learn about hitmen? It’s a profession egregiously over-represented on the big screen, considering its microscopic per capita employment level. And it’s a job that most movies, from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to Pulp Fiction to In Bruges, mine for excitement, with the hitman himself as the embodiment of cool. Rarely does the portrayal of paid killers onscreen offer much resembling critical perspective.
That’s what makes Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman so exciting. It actually does offer up perspective, a moral point of view. The Israeli-born director's third feature stars Michael Shannon as the real-life Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who murdered over 100 people from 1964-1986. At first glance, it may feel like Breaking Bad — the story of an ordinary schlub with a particular set of skills who enters into a criminal enterprise to provide for his family. But unlike Breaking Bad, which has it both ways by encouraging our cathartic identification with Walter White while half-heartedly condemning his crimes (hence why people like Walter more than suffering wife Skyler), The Iceman neither glamorizes nor identifies with its subject. One horrifying moment when Kuklinski’s partner in crime (Chris Evans) suggests that they kill each other’s families, as the cops are closing in, shows how down and dirty, uncool and unfunny, how thoroughly banal both these guys, Kuklinski included, really are. The Iceman is a slightly detached, clinical case-study of pathology, with Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski as its stone-faced test subject.
If it wasn’t already clear that Shannon is one of the finest actors on the planet, based on his towering perforamnces in Revolutionary Road, Shotgun Stories, and Take Shelter, The Iceman will unfog your glasses. Vromen’s film is Shannon’s De Niro-in-Raging Bull moment. He and his director have found a way to translate a true-crime story into a deconstruction of masculinity. The reptilian, tough-guy reserve Kuklinski projects to be taken seriously as a manly man to his wife (Winona Ryder), daughters, and friends — the emotional constipation that’s transformed his face into a craggy mask — aligns perfectly with the job requirements of being a killer: stereotypical masculine gender identity revealed to be akin to sociopathy and conducive to criminality. The most terrifying scene from any movie this year occurs when Kuklinski, in a fit of road rage, chases at high speed after a rude motorist who insulted his wife and daughters….while his wife and daughters are screaming terrified in the car. He’s defending their honor at the same time he’s recklessly endangering them.
Unfortunately, not much else surrounding Shannon in The Iceman is on par with Raging Bull. Instead of Joe Pesci, we have David Schwimmer as a mustachioed thug. Dispiritingly, Ray Liotta, as Kuklinski’s mobster employer, has decided these days to play only one kind of clench-jawed heavy from film-to-film. And Vromen has an affinity for the brown, tan, and orange hues in fashion and interior design of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but doesn’t find any way less clichéd to convey the passage of time than to continually alter Shannon’s facial hair or show the progression of the then still-under-construction World Trade Center towers.
Robert Davi as a pock-marked Don is arrestingly ruthless, however. James Franco leaves an impact as a pornographer Kuklinski forces to pray for deliverance from God, right before killing him. And Winona Ryder, soft, sincere, and incredibly vulnerable has given us her best performance in years. Her beautiful fragility opposite Shannon’s unwavering stolidness is what reveals Vromen’s ambition here to be a damning critique of gender roles and how, to some degree, we all perform them.