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

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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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher
Writer: Steven Zaillian, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård

★★☆☆☆

Admittedly, I have never understood the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel was dubbed sensationally as Sweden’s answer to War and Peace,to which it bears absolutely no resemblance, and, even withstanding such hyperbole, was a supreme disappointment. It is a readable thriller but is deeply flawed stylistically and structurally. I was not interested enough to read the sequels, or to see the 2009 Swedish adaptation.

However, the first trailer for David Fincher’s American version was tantalising, with its super slick editing and darkly foreboding imagery, backed by the glorious cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who were responsible for the film’s score, and featuring Karen O on vocals. The song is used again during the opening credits, which are instantly energising and get the adrenaline flowing, much as the trailer did. They look like an oily corruption of a James Bond title sequence. Unfortunately, despite not having technically started, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is never as good again.

It will make your skin crawl more than once, but the overall effect is numbing.

Following the opening titles, we are introduced to the parallel storylines of the two main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just lost a high profile libel case against a leading industrialist, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is struggling with the financial restrictions and sexual abuse of a state-appointed guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). Salander is a very modern heroine, a brilliant hacker with intriguing psychological issues, goth-punk styling and sexual ambivalence to boot – the fantastist core of the Millennium Trilogy. Mara looks the part and gives the well established character an ice-cold edge.

Blomkvist is comparatively uninteresting, necessarily so to create a sense of balance. He is not particularly likeable, has no qualms about sleeping with married women and, at the beginning of the film, has largely brought about his own downfall. Craig is perfectly suited to play him, bland enough to allow other characters to take centre stage, but charismatic when he needs to be. He is also the only actor not to bother with a Swedish accent, barring a few incomprehensible lines, which is a curiosity rather than a problem. When promised a solution to the professional and financial problems brought about by his court case, Blomkvist accepts a proposal from an ageing but wealthy businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to try and solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s murder. As if to taunt him, the killer continues to send Henrik pressed wild flowers on his birthday, just as his niece did when she was alive.

The film follows the plot of the novel exactly, with the exception of a pragmatic change to the ending. However, this a problem rather than a virtue. The central mystery is uninteresting and its solution unsurprising. It relies heavily on coincidence and good fortune, to the extent that the investigative work is merely a sideshow leading to an undeveloped tangent. Various members of the Vanger family are introduced at the beginning but few are relevant to the plot and only one is a credible suspect; most get less screen time than Blomkvist’s stray cat. As in the novel, the tacked-on ending is wholly unnecessary; it eliminates any sense of climax, and extends an already lengthy runtime.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lacks the necessary mystery to work as one, but only sporadically tries to be anything else. It should have been the hard and fast feel-bad movie the trailer promised, but it ends up as little more than a processional reformulation of the source material. Its strengths lie in exploitation; the brutal encounter between Salander and her guardian is difficult to watch but sickeningly powerful, while the sequence in which the murderer is identified is darkly comic and extremely good fun. Even these scenes, excellent though they are, are marred by a discomforting contrast in tone. And in comparison, the bulk of the film is either too serious or too restrained. Loyalty to the novel is a problem; adaptation allows leeway for changes, and if Fincher genuinely wanted to achieve anything, he should have insisted on them. The film is more polished than the novel, but suffers from many of the same problems.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not exactly a franchise in need of reinvigorating but, under Fincher’s direction, this still feels like a missed opportunity. It is technically accomplished in almost every sense, notably the cinematography, the acting and the score, but it lacks imagination, ambition and emotion. It is not gritty enough, or bold enough. At least it produced an exceptional song.

Rob Dickie

Hobo with a Shotgun

Director: Jason Eisener
Writer: John Davies
Year: 2011
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey

★★☆☆☆

If nothing else, Hobo with a Shotgun delivers what it promises, and delivers it by the bucket load. Like last year’s Machete, it is based on a trailer produced for the Tarantino/Rodriguez homage Grindhouse. In comparison, however, Machete is grindhouse for the masses.

The look of the film grabs you immediately, everything is washed over with an exaggerated garish Technicolor. Then, revelling in its own theatricality, it dives straight into an obscenely over-the-top execution in which the bad guys are introduced, Drake (Brian Downey) and his preppy but psychotic sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (“Introducing” Nick Bateman). A woman dances in a shower of blood spurting from the victim’s neck, she licks it seductively from her fingers. It sets the tone.

There is plenty of gore on show, and it is well done. It’s excessive but we expect nothing else. Jason Eisener pulls out all the stops. There are too many examples to list, but there is one fabulous sequence which involves someone being stabbed with the jagged bone from a cut-off forearm. Other positives include a great eighties-style soundtrack, continuity issues galore and several nods to old-school horror flicks, notably Peter Jackson’s Braindead towards the end.

Rutger Hauer stars as the Hobo, who in true B-movie style has to choose between a life of probably-suicidal vigilante crime-fighting or purchasing a lawnmower (both of which incidentally cost $49.99). Hauer is great in his role, striking the perfect balance between incoherence and menace – in this context, far more of the former than the latter. The obligatory hooker is played by Molly Dunsworth, who also does exactly what the film requires of her.

The film is good fun, but never quite enough fun to justify not giving the audience anything more coherent. Disappointingly, there are few great lines, and the dialogue is fairly weak, even bearing in mind its tongue-in-cheek intention. I am undecided on The Plague (The Plague are some kind of medievally-clad demons, who are apparently impossible to kill unless you have a lawnmower handy). There are memorable moments, such as when the Hobo delivers a soliloquy to screaming infants in a hospital, but for the most part it is forgettable.

Hobo with a Shotgun revels in its excess. It is a more sincere attempt than Machete to create a homage to grindhouse cinema, but is perhaps less successful for it. Homages are difficult to do well, because they aren’t trying to do anything except recreate. They have nothing really to say. The great grindhouse films did, however crudely they put it.

Rob Dickie