We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)
We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.
Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.
We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.
And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and Moonlight. Beale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.
A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking films.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Achingly romantic and visually rapturous, If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, utterly bowls Mike over, while José expresses some reservations about it, despite also finding it enormously impressive. A love story set in New York City in the late 60s/early 70s, the film follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they fall in love, begin to build a life together, but are threatened with its destruction by a racist cop and a false accusation of rape.
The title refers to a street in New Orleans that Baldwin, and subsequently Jenkins, use as a metaphor for the black experience across America, and arguably this is overambitious (if not simply impossible). The universality implied by the title is dissonant with what the film offers, which is much more personal and idiosyncratic. José points out the lack of anger in the film, anger that would be absolutely justified to express given both the general institutional racism the characters face in their place and time, and the specific instance of racist behaviour to which they are subjected: the rape accusation. Instead of fury, we see coping, survival, sadness, resistance and love, all communicated with an extraordinary depth of feeling and a camera that finds the beauty and subtlety in everyone’s face. And ultimately this is wonderful, it’s just that the title and opening intertitle that explains it somehow don’t seem to quite understand their own story.
There’s a huge amount we discuss, including the narration; the film’s excursion to Puerto Rico and how its depiction of the experience of Latinx people might or might not offer an interesting comparison to its central interest, the African-American community; how Brian Tyree Henry shows up for a scene and steals the entire film; how the film aims for visual poetry; how Jenkins conveys rich sense of different people’s lives and environments with just a few shots; and how the film chokes you up with its incredibly tactile depth of feeling that is sustained more or less throughout. We also bring up comparisons to Green Book, Get Out, and in particular, Moonlight, Jenkins’ previous film – José has issues with how he copped out of giving his story of a gay black boy’s difficulties growing up an honest ending, and takes issue with how viscerally one feels Tish’s desire for Fonny due to the way he’s shot, finding it even more disappointing than before that Jenkins didn’t do the same in Moonlight.
It’s a film we want to see again, infectious and emotionally rich, and if you don’t see it in a cinema you’re missing out. It’s great.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Fences is stagey and heavy-haded: Denzel is not much of a director. But he’s a great actor and this is a great role in one of *the* great American plays of the second half of the twentieth century. He and Viola Davis are something to see, together and individually and they overcome every other fault. Watching it reminded me of seeing Sidney Poitier as a child or reading James Baldwin as a teenager: it’s beautiful, so charming as to diffuse but not hide the underlying anger, and with a dash of low-down sexyness, here all the more praiseworthy given the protagonists’ ages. One feels elevated by the experience. I didn’t care that it’s not ‘cinematic’. What it does offer is great.
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierretteà l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection,The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,
Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.
From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011),Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly(Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.
Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World
The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer, or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.
The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows fromThe Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.
‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.
The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories(Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.
When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.
Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.
Second Scene: Anti-Thesis
The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman,when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.
I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?
‘You gotta feel something for somebody’
When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski. ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.
The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage – thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement
A Visual Relationship to Noir
The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).
Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites
Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.
The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.
From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.
The Second Turning Point and Descent
Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).
Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.
One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.
Detour into Franco
I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful(Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.
This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).
Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .
Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly, the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning. But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.
From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind). Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.
It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.
The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.