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

Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Year: 2011
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring

★★★★☆

Billed as the best British genre film in years, Kill List comes with a reputation considerably greater than its budget. The second feature from writer-director Ben Wheatley, it is a dark, surreal hit man film that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Kill List

It opens as an unnerving family drama, with extended scenes that depict a former serviceman, Jay (Neil Maskell), recovering from the psychological trauma of combat and the glum reality of unemployment. His relationship with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is turbulent to say the least, and, even their young son, Sam (Harry Simpson), appears afflicted by the claustrophobic domestic situation. Brought up on war stories and his parents shouting through the walls, his playtime revolves around conflict and, in an early scene, he is shown cutting his father while he is shaving at the sink. Wheatley creates an atmosphere in which nobody can be trusted – Jay can only listen helplessly while Shel pours out her emotions in a foreign language down the phone – is she having an affair? is she a spy? It is impossible to know. The disconnect, the extent of their mistrust, becomes significant as the plot progresses.

The tension, wrought from the outset, is finally released at a dramatic dinner party, which sees the introduction of Jay’s partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), along with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who has more to her than meets the eye. Jay and Shel fight viciously, with plenty of collateral damage to the crockery, before reconciling unconvincingly. Afterwards, Gal encourages Jay to forget what has happened in the past, alluding to a disastrous mission they undertook together in Kiev, and accept a job that they have been offered. It is simple; three people make up the kill list.

Once the action begins, it is brutal. We are told that these are bad people, they have to suffer. We have to watch. Wheatley pulls no punches and never cuts away, even when Jay takes a hammer to his victim’s skull; it is ruthless and visceral, but, at the same time engrossing. As well as the crude violence, there is something lingering beneath the surface, that unsettling feeling persists throughout the film, insinuating the presence of an unknown horror.

Kill List Ending

Close-ups are used heavily to create an obsessive, voyeuristic atmosphere and the way the British landscape is captured on camera, stripped of colour, devoid of characteristics, entirely banal, creates an impression of indefinable gloom. The film has a nightmarish quality and uses distinctive, unexplained images to heighten the effect, such as Fiona standing outside in her nightdress, waving slowly, pointedly at the window of a motorway hotel. The score adds to the disorientation; it is overt, in your face, made up of harsh sounds and curious whistles.

It  is this blending of the innocuous and the brutal that makes Kill List so engrossing. The tap-tap-tapping of the teaspoon against the cup, the domestic violence, the hammer blow to the head. It all seems connected somehow, like an expression of some inherent pent-up anger or collective death wish. Wheatley hints at a social commentary as well; the targets for assassination are a priest, a librarian and an MP; there are vague murmurings about the war. The message is not coherent, but you get the impression that there is something rotten at the core of the world that is portrayed.

The denouement only serves to confuse the message. It is arbitrary and slightly derivative, seemingly added for effect alone. Fortunately, as with the rest of the film, you can’t argue with the effect. The climax is a powerful piece of cinema, shocking and unsettling, played out by firelight in the dark. Exactly what it means will be debated – it probably won’t be fully understood – but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Despite the confounding finale, Kill List is a wonderful British horror film, stark and brutal, superbly shot, with imagery to haunt you for years.

Rob Dickie

Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

Stoker

Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Year: 2013
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

★★★★☆

Best known for the brilliant cult revenge thriller Oldboy, Korean director Chan-wook Park’s debut English-language film is stylish, seductive and frequently ludicrous, an unscrupulous Hitchcockian romp around an isolated country estate. Wentworth Miller’s first script is unabashedly derivative, lifting plot points, imagery and virtually whole characters from a number of sources, notably Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but Park’s sharp direction ensures that Stoker is wildly entertaining in spite of its flaws.

Having lost her doting father in a horrific car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is forced to live alone with her unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), before her mysterious, charismatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral and moves in to help them through their difficult time. Caught up in his overt refinement and clean good looks, Evelyn is oblivious to his true motives but India, who has vague extra-sensory powers and a odd, near-psychic connection with her uncle, is onto him straight away. He cooks them extravagant meals without taking a bite, hinting at the vampirism of the title, and tries to implant himself in every aspect of their lives. But it is only when their long-standing housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s suspicious aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) disappear in quick succession that his violent nature is made explicit and we understand that he will go to any lengths to obtain what he desires.

Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode Stoker

Goode knows exactly the type of character he is supposed to be channelling and measures his performance perfectly, right to the borderline of pastiche, while Kidman is well-suited to playing the bored, desperate housewife. Wasikowska gives an equally strong turn; India is disturbed, tortured and only ever half-innocent, a high school student and social outcast trying desperately to become adult.

Her burgeoning sexuality is essential to the film and the way it develops as the plot takes shape is as inventive as it is disturbing. As you would expect from Park, there are some controversial moments, including a violent masturbation scene, but it is mostly kept respectable enough. Sexual desire is portrayed through orgasmic, dionysian piano duets, composed and performed by Philip Glass, or dancing provocatively to the inimitable Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. The soundtrack works exceptionally well, as does Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score.

What is most interesting about Stoker is the way it imbalances, blurs the distinctions between reality and illusion, objectivity and subjectivity. There is some clever editing that toys with perspective and renders scenes out of sequence, implying that everything requires a second look. The film’s main weakness, though, is that some things still don’t quite add up. India can hear voices through a wall at a great distance and paint the inside of a vase without being able to see it, but, at times, is prone to missing what is right in front of her nose. It is meant to be disorienting, we are supposed to continually question what exactly is going on, but some plot elements are left underdeveloped, while others are verging on fantastical.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief, but the quickening pace ensures it never becomes too much of an issue. The second half is engrossing, particularly when the violence escalates and the complete family history is revealed. From the opening lines onward, there is much exploration of self-determination; the film questions whether we can ever be held responsible for what we become, especially when our identity is contrived before we are fully conscious of it. At the end of Oldboy, the central character takes responsibility for his actions in an infamous scene, whereas in Stoker the opposite occurs. An intimation of cultural differences, perhaps. Stoker is violent, but it is more perverse than horrifying, seductive than repulsive. It is a gloriously entertaining piece of cinema, brazen and almost tawdry, without meaning or conscience.

Rob Dickie

I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Dragon (Wu xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Oi Wah Lam
Year: 2011
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

★★★★☆

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s creative director, Chris Fujiwara, has encouraged audiences to step out of their comfort zone and experience something different, which is precisely what I did with Dragon. Martial arts films are not normally high on my to-watch list, and I would be hard pressed to remember the last one I actually saw. However, I am certainly glad I gave this one a shot. Dragon is the hugely successful Chinese director Peter Chan’s first venture into the wu xia genre, but it is a real treat. With a narrative as intense as the set pieces, it is an intriguing thriller about two men seeking redemption from their past.

They are brought together when the seemingly ordinary paper worker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), fights and kills two ruthless armed robbers, who make an assault on the shop he happens to be in. When it emerges that one of the bandits was a trained killer and one of the most dangerous men in China, an intuitive detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), becomes suspicious of the idyllic village’s new hero.

Dragon Wu Xia Donnie Yen

The first fight scene is entertaining in itself, but is taken to an extra level when it is meticulously reconstructed in Xu’s mind. The action is replayed, with added focus at the crucial moments, and embellished with Xu’s analysis. Deducing that Liu must have used qi energy and advanced fighting techniques, Xu exposes the ruse that he simply got lucky. Chan uses a range of visual effects, particularly to add precise detail to the development of internal wounds, a technique which remains effective throughout the film.

Once Xu has confirmed there is more to Liu than meets the eye, the psychological conflict between the two men can begin. Xu’s character offers a unique perspective on the action, and Kaneshiro gives a measured performance, showing a studious exterior which harbors an intense passion. Tortured by the memory of setting a young criminal free early in his career, only for him to return home and poison his parents, Xu makes law the highest principle in life, placing it above all humanity. He is determined to bring Liu to justice, long before he discovers the extent of his violent past.

Liu is also a complex character, determined to live an ordinary life but evidently hiding something terrible. Dragon’s opening scene depicts him dining with his family in a tranquil home, and it is so genuine a moment that his sincere desire for reform cannot initially be doubted. However, as word of his whereabouts spreads, Liu’s resolve is sternly tested and he is forced to directly confront the demons of his past.

Chan is able to seamlessly blend genres, combining elements from drama, action and detective films, and this also serve to make a formal point within Dragon itself. We are presented with a world in transition — the old methods of existence are beginning to be superseded as new technologies ensure material prosperity in rural areas. There is a conflict between the scientific and the natural, the part and the whole, which is exemplified in the two central characters. Tradition, spirituality and man’s connection with nature are all challenged as the film develops, adding thematic depth to an exceptionally entertaining film.

Dragon’s consistently arresting narrative is backed up by strong performances, spectacular visuals, intense action sequences and beautiful cinematography, making it an exhilarating ride.

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