Thursday, May 2, 2013

A famous New Jersey contract killer comes to creepy life in Ariel Vroman's THE ICEMAN

Dark, dirty and generally disgusting much of the time, THE ICEMAN, from Israeli filmmaker Ariel Vroman (shown below), is also one of those can't-take-your-eyes-away-from-the-horror, true-life tales of a murdering man with little or no conscience for anything outside of himself and his immediate family and very small circle of friends. We've seen this done many times before, from various film noir to The Godfather through The Sopranos and their endless spin-offs. What distinguishes The Iceman are its straight-ahead narrative drive and excellent cast, with a number of actors appearing in roles that rather define their careers (Ray Liotta, shown in the penultimate photo below), while others are used so differently than we usually see them (Chris Evans and David Schwimmer) that they may go unrecognized until the end credits roll.

As good as the supporting cast remains (very good indeed), it's the movie's star, Michael Shannon, shown below and on poster, top, who will knock the socks off viewers unfamiliar with this actor's consistently fine work. Shannon is a relatively tall and rangy actor with a big, square face and huge eyes that, when they go dead, scare the shit out of you. He can be sad and funny and benevolent, too (see The Missing Person, Return or the just-out Mud for a good sampling of his other sides), but for sheer scariness, he's the go-to guy for this decade. He's also versatile enough to make each new bad guy he essays decidedly different from the last one.

As Richard Kuklinski, the notorious New Jersey killer, Shannon -- aided by Vroman's direction and co-screenwriting (along with Morgan Land, with the help of Anthony Bruno's book and James Thebaut's earlier documentary) -- turns this guy into a genuinely interesting, if very frightening, fellow. We get just a dash of the abused kids that he and his prison-inmate brother (Stephen Dorff, also nearly unrecognizable here) were at the hands of their nasty dad, along with a sense of useless religion hammered in from a very early age.

We observe early on that this man is dangerously violent when he somewhat overreacts, shall we say, to an insult aimed at his new girlfriend, Winona Ryder (above), soon to be his wife. From here, it's but an easy step into the world of organized crime and the more lucrative life of a hit man.

The movie doesn't waste time trying to explain how a murderer can be such a loving family man (see photo at bottom). We understand this pretty thoroughly by now; in any case, it excuses nothing. So Vroman vrooms ahead to the various crimes, shown with the ugliness they should be, and also with some interesting variations on the hit-man-and-his-victims theme. Some killings are shown quickly, others take a little time. The demise of a sleazy porn photographer (played by James Franco, above, probably repaying Shannon for that actor's appear-ance in Franco's own poetic misfire, The Broken Tower) takes longest of all and is quirky and effective on a number of levels. It also leads to the joining of forces (the character known as Mr. Freezy, below) that takes everything into even darker territory.

As I may have already suggested, there is not a lot that's new here overall, but the specifics of this particular story possess their own unique nastiness. Everything -- script, direction, performances and technical staff -- work together to give the movie a growing sense of betrayal, paranoia and impending doom.

If the film seems to suddenly and simply end, rather than feeling cheated in any way, I suspect you'll instead be breathing in a deep sigh of relief.

The Iceman, from Millennium Entertainment and running 106 minutes, opens this Friday, May 3, in New York City at the AMC Lincoln Square 13 and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood 15 and The Landmark.

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