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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Michael Shannon Has Little To Say And Plenty To Kill In The Chilling Mafia Thriller, THE ICEMAN

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) in The Iceman
Once again, Michael Shannon proves he's one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood with a performance so spellbinding you won't be able to take your eyes off him.

In THE ICEMAN, Shannon plays notorious New Jersey contract killer Richard Kuklinski, a guy so merciless and cold that he was simply known as "The Iceman" around the streets (and because of his unorthodox method of icing the bodies so that the police couldn't tell how long the victim had been dead). It's been recorded that he's murdered at least 100 people throughout his more than forty year spree (roughly between 1948 and 1986) before he was eventually arrested and sentenced to consecutive life terms until his death in prison in 2006.

Kuklinski

If you've seen any gangster movie at all, you'll probably be able to figure out how the story will play out on film even before you see it. In fact, even Ray Liotta is in the movie, playing a conventional character we already know he can play in his sleep--Roy Demeo, a ruthless mafioso for whom Richard works for the greater part of the movie. Director Ariel Vromen doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel here as far as gangster movies go, but if he did anything right is is live up to the title of the film by making each scene more intense than the last, capturing his actors at their finest.

Shannon, who is known for extremely dry performances in which the audience never really knows whether they should laugh or cry (or do both), is both quietly enigmatic relentlessly malicious throughout the entire film. He emits little to no emotion, even when we watch him make his first kill--a harmless vagrant on the street begging for cash who he takes out in broad daylight. But it's this monstrous tone that is so eloquently balanced by the burdened character he plays in front of his wife and kids.

To portray a man like Richard, someone so emotionally vacant and who can easily separate himself from his own heinous acts, you need an actor like Shannon who can dig deep and find the humanity in a seemingly soulless being. With the help of Vromen and co-writer Morgan Land's taut screenplay, we get a significant glimpse into Richard's abusive childhood and his strained relationship with his jailed brother, Joey (surprisingly played by Stephen Dorff). But, in doing so, the film is careful to not force sympathy from the audience. Rather, it uses scenes, like Richard visiting Joey in prison to intimidate him from calling his home, to reveal his desperation to remove himself from his tortured past and align himself further with this vicious self-made alter ego to which he has committed.

THE ICEMAN is made more fascinating to watch by the relationships Richard acquires throughout his life, both professionally and personally, however futile or manipulative. But perhaps the most enthralling is seeing Shannon mask the role of thug and daintily balance family life. As much as he tries to create a divide between his two personas, as things go it falls apart at times.

Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) in The Iceman

Winona Ryder, an actress who has made a career out of playing varied shades of dark characters, is right in her element as Richard's somewhat oblivious wife, Deborah. Where Shannon's stoicism and terseness paints Richard as unaffected, Ryder's Deborah is a softer version of him. While she starts off as a meek and naive young woman in the '60s (when we first meet her), she gradually is molded into a embittered wife by time and circumstance. Ryder doesn't reveal Deborah's emotions right away, but when she does it's honest and even eerie in its unnerved delivery. She and Shannon make quite the hypnotic onscreen pair.

Two other actors whose performances should be called out for their sheer surprise is Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy, a man with whom Richard allies after his DeMeo tenure, and David Schwimmer, as DeMeo's sweatsuit-clad, ponytailed lapdog. While the two don't share any scenes together, they each serve their purposes in the gritty underbelly of the movie.

It won't sustain audiences with its perceivable, play-by-numbers plot, but THE ICEMAN is captivating with its performances and escalating tension. It's an absolute must-see.

Rating: B+ (**** out of ***** stars)

Watch the trailer for THE ICEMAN (which releases in theaters Friday):

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