The Iceman

Director: Ariel Vromen
Writer: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen, Anthony Bruno (book), Jim Thebaut (documentary)
Year: 2012
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta

★★★☆☆

Michael Shannon is a force of nature as the remorseless hitman, Richard Kuklinski, known as ‘The Iceman’ due to his propensity to store his victims’ corpses in an industrial freezer to disguise their time of death. He is one of few actors who can make you cower in the cinema, without having all that much to work with; his co-star, Ray Liotta, is pretty good, but needs the right line of dialogue and a gun to someone’s head to get close to producing the same effect.

Michael Shannon

Directed by Ariel Vromen, this Goodfellas-style biopic opens with Kuklinski awkwardly manoeuvring his way through a date with his future wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), reluctantly charming her by saying she looks like ‘a prettier version of Natalie Wood’. He is a man of few words, reserved and intimidating, but courteous enough to convince her to see him again. In the next scene at a pool hall, we learn they are engaged, and, when a man insults Deborah, Kuklinski initially resists the provocation, but later calmly slits his throat with a knife.

While working processing bootleg porn films, his cold-blooded talents come to the attention of mafia boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), who hires him to collect debts and solve problems, using predictably brutal methods. Fast forward ten years or so, and he has made a good living from this line of work, enough to buy a large house in the suburbs for his family and send his two daughters to private school. The turning point comes when a 17-year-old girl witnesses one of Kuklinski’s hits and, in a rare display of pity, he allows her to flee the scene. As a result, DeMeo puts him out of work and he is forced to strike out on his own, forming a partnership with the elusive Mr Freezy (Chris Evans) and getting increasingly embroiled in the dangerous machinations of mob politics.

The plot moves rapidly through the chronology of Kuklinski’s unquestionably fascinating life, but much of what makes him so interesting is lost along the way. Despite Shannon’s mesmerising performance, it is difficult to know what really lies beneath his character’s exterior, where that all-conquering rage rises from. His true darkness is hinted at, such as in the scene where he makes one victim (James Franco, in a cameo role) pray to God to deliver him from his imminent death, but, mostly, we are given the straightforward story of a contract killer whose career takes a turn for the worse.

Chris Evans

Throughout the film, Kuklinski claims that his family are the only people he feels anything for and he certainly goes to extreme lengths to protect them, even when that means, paradoxically, putting them in immediate danger. It adds a sympathetic dimension to the character, although we are never quite sure how sincere his feelings are, and gives Shannon an outlet to viscerally display the tension caused by balancing his private and professional lives. Winona Ryder is exceptional as his unsuspecting wife, innocently spoiled and naively in love with a man who appears so dedicated to providing for her. The rest of the ensemble cast also perform strongly, particularly Liotta and Evans, while David Schwimmer, Robert Davi and Stepehn Dorff have memorable supporting roles.

The film falls short as a biopic, lacking the necessary detail, and, as a gangster film, it struggles to gain momentum, rigidly following the structure of its subject’s life. The ending is anticlimactic and fails to translate the growing tension into a dramatic payoff. The Iceman is all about Shannon though. He gives a powerhouse performance as a ruthless killer who is always on the edge, capable of instantly becoming a threat to himself and everyone around him. His version of Kuklinski is a family man with an addiction to violence; he simply cannot function without it or walk away from it, and you get the impression that the idea never seriously crosses his mind.

Rob Dickie

Killer Joe

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts (play and screenplay)
Year: 2011
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon

★★★★☆

A bold choice to open the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Killer Joe is a violent, twisted black comedy with an ending that will leave you squirming on the edge of your seat. Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own hit Broadway play, it begins as a trashy trailer park thriller but develops into something truly shocking.

Matthew McConaughey is a revelation, giving the performance of his career as the title character, a perverse detective and assassin on the side. He dominates every scene and continually astonishes, not least because he retains every ounce of his charisma until the very end, long after it should have drained away entirely.

Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey Juno Temple

The film opens with Chris (Emile Hirsch), a good for nothing slacker, banging on the door of his father’s trailer until his half-naked stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon), lets him in. He has just been thrown out of his mother’s house and is in desperate need of money after getting into debt with some dangerous men. Having heard that Killer Joe Cooper can be hired for a fee, he hatches a plan along with his simple-minded father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to have his mother murdered so they can cash in her $50,000 life insurance policy. However, he has no chance of stumping up the hefty advance that Joe demands, so is forced to offer his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as sexual collateral.

The scenes featuring Joe and Dottie are electric, by far the best in the film. Their first meeting is intriguing, but the scene in which they have time to spend alone together is intense and completely disarming. Dottie is a fascinating character because we are never allowed to know where she stands, or what her ultimate role will be. To the other characters, she is a troubled adolescent or quasi-paedophilic fantasy, but she remains in control of herself and is able to effortlessly skip around them all.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the planning and aftermath of the murder and, unfortunately, it gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Too much of the action is diverted to the somewhat juvenile subplot involving Chris and the gangsters, and any scenes which do not feature McConaughey lack a spark. For the most part, he is a level above the film. The other male performances are laboured when he is not on screen, and even Gershon and Temple, who are both excellent, work best when following his lead.

But what Killer Joe was really made for is the finale, a long self-contained scene that comes out of nowhere to reanimate the flailing narrative. It is brutal, excessive, violent, melodramatic, and makes nauseatingly effective use of a fried chicken drumstick in a soon-to-be-notorious scene. It ends on such a nasty, trashy high that it will be a while before you remember there were any serious flaws in it at all. If you ignore the bloated middle, Killer Joe is a provocative, excruciating and memorable piece of cinema, with a truly great villain. It’s just a shame there is so much you would like to forget.

Rob Dickie

Contraband

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski, Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam)
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster

★★★☆☆

Contraband is yet another Hollywood remake of a successful foreign film, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who starred in the original. However, given Reykjavik-Rotterdam’s relative obscurity outside Iceland and the extent to which Contraband resembles any other stereotypical Hollywood action film, it is unlikely that anyone will notice.

The plot centres around Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a retired smuggler who is forced to go on one final run when his teenage brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), botches a job on a cargo ship and finds his life threatened by his dangerous boss, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris leaves his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two young sons under the care of his best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster), while he takes Andy to Panama in order to smuggle back an enormous quantity of counterfeit money to pay off Briggs. He assures them that nothing can possibly go wrong. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

Giovanni Ribisi

The job is extremely risky, and what should have been a relatively simple run for an experienced smuggler turns into something closely resembling a heist. It is excessively contrived and relies on a great deal of remarkably good fortune. Farraday’s journey puts him into conflict with local crime bosses, police and customs officials, and, as the plot develops, we get an increasing sense of déjà vu. However, the action sequences are good and not too frequent, and, despite being predictable, it is usually entertaining.

The other side of the film works better, and Contraband would have benefited from making the action a foil for the drama back in New Orleans rather than the other way around. There is so much more at stake compared to Farraday’s disinterested caper around Panama. His family are constantly under threat, embroiled in a conflict they do not fully understand. Giovanni Ribisi is the best thing about the film; he puts on a grimy, drawling voice and creates the kind of villain you can’t take too seriously until you realise he is deadly serious. Briggs is vicious and childish in equal measure, and Ribisi deserves far more screen time than he gets. The twist which develops in the second half of the film increases the intensity, bringing the harsh realities of smuggling to light. Debts have to be repaid, in money or blood, and everyone has debts.

But, on the whole, Contraband doesn’t strive for anything other than mediocrity. The plot is rounded off with an almost boastful predictability, but, after what has come before, it is everything that is expected. There is a running joke about a valuable painting being confused for a piece of tarpaulin which has been done so many times it makes you wonder if that’s the point.

Contraband practically begs you to dislike it but, in the end, you probably won’t. In many ways, it feels like it should have been a complete waste of time. Wahlberg has reached the stage in his career when he should be making better films, more for his name than his talent, and it shows here – he has no inclination to do anything at all with the starring role. But despite its many flaws, Contraband is a decent story-driven action film that works as a piece of entertainment, even if it won’t live long in the memory.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 20 March 2012

The Raven

Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingstone, Hannah Shakespeare
Year: 2012
Cast: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans

★★☆☆☆

Taking its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is a rather imaginative dramatisation of the author’s mysterious last days. Just before his death, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state, wearing clothes that were not his own. However you want to try to explain that, the events portrayed in the film certainly don’t come close.

Serious explanation, though, is not the point. The Raven is a shameless attempt to squeeze in as many of Poe’s gruesome scenarios as is humanly possible in the best part of two hours. The premise is that a serial killer is copying the murders in his stories in an attempt to draw the author into his game. Poe undoubtedly influenced this kind of scenario, as well as virtually everything else in the detective genre, but he would not have written it. It is too fast-paced, too convoluted, lacking Poe’s scrupulous detail and obsessive focus.

John Cusack

While he is best known for the creating the elaborate set-piece murders on show here, Poe’s work relies on psychological interiority and that unique melancholic atmosphere no copycat can reproduce. The problem with The Raven is that it doesn’t even try to do this and, were it not for the protagonist’s name and the continual references to his stories, you’d be hard pressed to tell it has anything to do with Poe at all.

John Cusack plays the title character, and looks the part with the familiar neckerchief and sickly grey countenance. He gives a quirky performance, toying with Poe’s famous verbosity and injecting him with a more playful nature than you might expect. His co-star Luke Evans is less assured, unconvincingly playing a character that most actors could play in their sleep; Detective Fields is not exactly C. Auguste Dupin. Better might be expected from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, but he is unable to create any sense of mystery or tension, relying too much on source material which he is unable to successfully recreate. The ending is very much a case of pulling a killer out of a hat.

It is perhaps unfair to judge the merits of a film against the work of a great 19th century author and, despite its shortcomings, The Raven is not all bad. It’s a watchable, if not exactly thrilling, thriller and there are some good scenes, usually, well always, carried by Cusack. Poe’s relationship with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is given a poetic edge and his descent into melancholy gives the film an extra dimension. It has the right look too, especially during some of the set pieces, although it must be said that some of the bigger ones are a let-down. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial are given disappointing treatments, flawed in that they appear insignificant. McTeigue removes from the former story the horror and (necessarily) the dimension of time; the audience want nothing more than to see the pendulum fall, which is a fatal flaw. And we know exactly how the latter will pan out, eliminating the sense of claustrophobia.

As a by-the-numbers serial killer flick, The Raven would have been adequate enough, but it promised much more. When treated like this, the references to Poe cannot make up for the lack of originality, and, whether you are a fan or not, there is nothing new to see here.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 13 March 2012

Drive

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Hossein Amini, James Sallis (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

★★★★☆

It is rare that the director of a B-movie wins the big prize at Cannes, but it is a testament to the quality of Drive that Nicolas Winding Refn managed to pull it off. Of course, Drive is not a B-movie in the strictest sense – it has a sizeable budget and features two of the hottest young stars in the business – but it certainly has a B-movie feel. That is not a criticism at all. It could just as easily be described as an arthouse blockbuster, but B-movie is more affectionate, and closer to the spirit of the film.

The trailer implied that Drive had little more to offer than fast and furious action, but Refn uses and subverts typical driving films to great effect. It opens with a getaway, not your usual drive fast dodge traffic blow up road tankers kind of getaway, but one that sees the Driver (Ryan Gosling) favour stealth and ingenuity over his powerful engine. The Driver is an enigmatic figure, silent, sensitive and psychotic. He is a getaway driver, a stunt driver, a racing driver, a mechanic – whatever you need him to be.

Actions speak louder than words for Ryan Gosling’s Driver.

After completing the job, the Driver meets his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her young son. He fixes her car and gives her a ride back to their Hollywood apartments. A simple relationship develops; he stares and smiles, she smiles back. They barely speak. We find out that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in jail, but later he is let out. His past catches up with him and he is badly beaten up. The Driver decides to help him out for the sake of Irene, a decision which lands him in bigger trouble than he could have imagined.

The plot is interesting enough but takes a back seat. Events happen but most are disconnected and underdeveloped. Essentially, Drive is an exercise in style. It’s saturated in it. Everything is washed over with a retro eighties twist, from the bright pink titles and synth-heavy soundtrack to the cartoonish ultra-violence on show. It even has a montage. It’s intensely theatrical, especially towards the end. Refn plays with light, plays with slow motion; you get the sense he had a lot of fun with Drive. The prevailing sense of unreality also creates one of the best depictions of Hollywood in recent years.

Gosling carries the film superbly with an up-to-date version of the old-fashioned antihero. He is extremely dangerous but possesses simple charisma and a heart of gold; he is the type of character you can root for. The other performances are also strong; Mulligan is not exactly stretched but is always loveable, Albert Brooks gives a good turn as the more intelligent of the two gangsters, and Bryan Cranston is superb as the Driver’s friend and mentor, Shannon.

Not everything in Drive works though, and it is important not to get carried away. Refn flawlessly creates the right atmosphere for his film to flourish but doesn’t always back it up with enough substance. There are some stunning scenes and the momentum builds slowly, but the film is badly let down by its ending. The final confrontation is spoiled with a poor choice of shot, and the plot somehow manages to swerve around its conclusion.

As I said at the beginning, Drive is a B-movie, and is best enjoyed on that level. It is better than most, because the talent is better than most. Refn is an excellent director and he is working with great actors. Drive is an endearing and stylish film, but not one to be taken too seriously.

Rob Dickie