Flow Like a Harpoon: previewing The Iceman at ID Fest 2013

Ariel Vroman’s hitman biopic The Iceman opens ID Fest at Derby QUAD tomorrow night (Thursday 9th May).  Here’s a preview.  Spoiler warnings apply if you’d rather not know anything, but if you’ve seen Goodfellas there’s little to spoil anyway.

The Iceman
(Ariel Vroman, 2012)

As long as Richie Kuklinski could remember, he always wanted to be a hitman. The recruitment by a local Mafia player.  The instant wealth: the house, the suits, the model family.  And then the inevitable fall: a paranoid descent whereby it becomes second nature to bump off friends and colleagues in an increasingly desperate attempt to deny the inevitable.

The Iceman can’t avoid those Goodfellas comparisons – never mind the presence of Ray Liotta, even the 1960s to 1980s time frame is the same.  Yet Ariel Vroman’s crime thriller about the notorious New York contract killer has one asset Scorsese had to wait until Boardwalk Empire before he could use: Michael Shannon.  The actor’s intensity has rarely been better utilised, as that monolithic face and dead-eyed stare are used to essay the coldest of screen killers.

While the Iceman identity wasn’t technically the result of Kuklinski’s demeanour – it was a media nickname based on a gruesome modus operandi – Vroman milks the metaphor by encouraging Shannon to remain implacable, the poker face genuinely unsettling as he chats to victims in the seconds leading up to swift, remorseless shootings or stabbings.

There is, however, a twist: beneath the frozen surface lurks a heart, which beats with genuine warmth for his wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters.  Vroman dissects the duality with admirable precision: this is a family man who has compartmentalised his life in an attempt to repress a boiling rage caused by an abused childhood.  But when Kuklinski’s fortunes turn and his worlds collide, so his mood changes. Scared of Shannon when he’s icy? Try him when he’s angry.

The academic approach is fascinating, but never quite eclipses the film’s flaws.  The dispassionate direction refreshes well-worn narrative beats but it sits oddly with Vroman’s ‘throw a dart at the Screen Actors Guild directory’ approach to casting.  For every eccentric triumph (a scene-stealing Chris Evans as an ice cream van-driving hitman who keeps more than choc ices in the freezer), there’s an equally odd misfire, with one icon of TV comedy coming particularly unstuck playing against type.  Nor is the passage of time convincing, as Vroman trusts to hairstyles to convince that Shannon and Ryder have aged from twentysomething newlyweds to middle-age spread.

The Iceman is on general release from 7th June, but you can catch it tomorrow at ID Fest, along with a host of other family-themed movies and some great special events.

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