“The Iceman” on Telluride festival

Friday, Sep 7, 2012

The Iceman, a superviolent new film based on the true story of a mafia contract killer who became one of the most prolific murderers in history, had its world premiere Aug. 30 in Venice and its North American premiere Sept. 2 at Telluride. The project features an awards-worthy performance by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, albeit in a film that is about as far outside of the Academy’s wheelhouse as one can get, which leads me to believe it probably will go unrecognized.

The Iceman, which is still seeking a U.S. distributor, was directed by Israeli filmmaker Ariel Vromen, who also co-wrote the project with Morgan Land. Vroman’s first feature in six years and third overall, it was produced by his countryman Ehud Bleiberg, who has had four films at Telluride in the past five years, including the terrific The Band’s Visit and Precious Life. The film recounts — often in shockingly graphic ways — the three decades during which Richard Kuklinski, a guy from Jersey City with a dark personality, meets his wife (Oscar nominee Winona Ryder in a nice role and looking as good as ever) and gets pulled into and then comes to depend on a life of crime.

As Kuklinski, Shannon is perfect for the part of a distant husband/father and killer, who is nicknamed “the Iceman” because he’s “cold as ice” (and also because he froze many of his victims). Although he’s a lovely guy offscreen (I’ve interviewed him many times), even he has acknowledged: “When I’m sitting in a neutral state, when I’m not having any feeling or emotion whatsoever, I look slightly pissed off. It’s just the way I came out of the womb or something. … I tend to make people more uneasy.” This quality has served him in good stead on film in Revolutionary Road (for which he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination) and Take Shelter (for which he should have received a best actor Oscar nom), on TV’s Boardwalk Empire and again in this project. Kuklinski is a character who, at every stage of his life — young or old, single or married, poor or stable — behaves like a zombie. Except, that is, when he feels that he has to commit an act of violence.

One of the principal bad guys in the film is played by Ray Liotta, appropriately enough, since this is one of the most violent films since GoodFellas (1990), which made Liotta a household name. Other cameos, of one size or another, are contributed by David Schwimmer (rocking a ponytail and handlebar mustache), Chris Evans (virtually unrecognizable), Stephen Dorff (also in a mustache) and James Franco (playing a pervert). And they are all very good.

But make no mistake about it: This is Shannon’s showcase — and, incidentally, thank you to Vromen for giving it to him, since he doesn’t get enough starring parts — and if anyone is to be recognized from The Iceman during awards season, it surely will be Shannon.