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'The Kings of Summer' Warms, and 'The Iceman' Chills

Here is another movie about kids who go off into the deep woods—this time in rural Ohio. When was the last time such a premise didn’t end in an alarming body count with disturbed Indian burial grounds or a family of degenerates preying on human meat or just the isolation of it all, with corn circles and wood spirits undermining the high-school cultural cool? Movies once chose a single arc, but these days the jaded audience wants all the arcs at once. You could call it Screaming Trees or If You Go Down in the Woods Today....

The pleasure here is that there are no carved-up corpses hanging from the trees, and no exposé of high-school kids so unappealing that even a bear or a self-respecting monster would avoid them. The Kings of Summer, written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, prefers the real thing. Most of it is shot in daylight; its action does not depart from the kind of adventures you might find in Ohio. Without sentimentality or easy solutions, this is a delightful and persuasive portrait of real kids—with only one exception: these boys think and talk with eccentric flavor such as I have not heard in an American film since True Grit. The language is as dry as pepper and as unexpected as salt in your coffee. These are ordinary kids, yet utterly unique. 

The Kings of Summer sounds like a film that might have been made in the 1950s, and it is mercifully free of the whimsy and mannered prettiness that made Moonrise Kingdom a small hit and an experience like eating sugared doughnuts with suspect teeth. Moonrise Kingdom had many enthusiasts, and it grossed three times what it cost. There were amusing things about it, but it was twee and self-satisfied. The Kings of Summer cost a little over a million dollars and it could get lost as it opens on a very modest basis, but it will surprise and please you in the way its kids are part of a total imaginative enterprise that is eccentric but everyday. These kids are as odd as you and me, but they don’t know it, and they don’t have cellphones in one pocket and a cute screenwriter in the other. They don’t even know that they are odd—they think it’s the world that’s cockeyed!

It’s much more summer than kings in a title that has a gentle irony about it, as in the days when irony still ran in American minds and streams. Preston Sturges could have made a film called The Greatest Nation on Earth and you’d have known you were about to lose your pants in the rain, whereas that same title today would be belligerent, empty, and loaded with CGI. The kids in The Kings of Summer are skeptical without being septic; they share the regular adolescent ideals of sex, independence, and laziness. They are all a little crazy and somehow they have had schools that turn them out as wild talkers soaked in self-mockery. At the same time, you have never seen such kids on a screen before, and you welcome them as the kind of offspring we might have ourselves if we made all the usual mistakes with our dogged good intentions.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is a dreamy boy with sleepy eyes, half shy, half detached; his is the mind that is beginning to think of stories and shaving. His mother is dead and his father, Frank, is solid but desperate, doing his best and putting his foot in it. He is played by Nick Offerman without any attempt to be warm or ingratiating, with the result that you love him. Joe has two friends, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), a good-looking kid, an athlete probably (he has one foot in a cast, never explained). And then there is Biaggio (Moises Arias), who looks like Kafka at twelve, and can shift from trance to being a hip dancer. He’s so unlikely in rural Ohio that you realize this film is indifferent to likelihood.

Photo courtesy fo Millenium Entertainment
Michael Shannon as hitman Richard Kuklinski. 

So the three boys wander into the woods to build a house and get away from ridiculous parents. They see deer, birds, rodents, and a snake. They make fires and cook a few meals. Joe and Gabriel share a kissy girlfriend, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who has enough kindness and understanding to cope with them both without going down on them. Nothing happens beyond it being a summer to remember, and a feast of forgetting, and the film is often made of fragments as if the mythology of that summer is breaking up the actuality. There are big emotional close-ups, again without much explanation, and random cutaways and sound overlaps. I don’t think Ohio or anywhere else need be like this. The Kings of Summer is a movie and a fresh delight, full of amiable, foolish people and the casual persistence of common lives. It’s also the sort of movie that may not hang around for long, so get to it fast. Then you can see it again. God knows what a director as odd as this does next, but you’ll be glad he did this.

I can’t say the same for The Iceman, the kind of ordeal that thinks it can get away with mayhem and brutality by insisting on the provenance of real events. The central figure is Richard Kuklinski, a man who has forgotten how many people he has killed because he regards it as a hobby or a vocation, not as a job. Yes, he was paid, by one Mob or another, and in the film he uses that money to support a family while hiding where it comes from. The real Kuklinski died in prison in 2006 at the age of 70, just days before he was about to testify against Sammy Gravano.

There are suggestions that Kuklinski was mentally disturbed, or paranoid, or bipolar—but what about the mental illness that wants to watch the reenactment and study the mounting psychopathology of Michael Shannon’s characters? If you don’t know who Shannon is, think of the neighbor in Revolutionary Road, and of Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, and of the central figure in Take Shelter, who fears that an apocalyptic storm is coming. Shannon is one of the most ominous and potent people on screen today. I don’t know him, and I hope he’s a sweetheart. But he looks both frightening and frightened of himself, steeped in anger and depression, and so full of despair that he is a danger to others. How good an actor is he? It is hard to tell, because he is steadily cast as an intimidating force of unexplained hostility. He needs enormous and challenging roles to find out what is really lurking there. He needs to be Uncle Vanya, or one of the fellows waiting for Godot, or Falstaff. 

Kuklinski killed at least a hundred people; we get to see a fair sampling of them, and we are expected to accept that this is the way of the world. However damaged he was as a child (and there are insulting, exculpatory hints of this), Kuklinski is offered as a family man who loves his wife and children as if they were his life raft in mid-Pacific. He does not apologize for his actions, or seek any profound explanations. He simply says that he does it to protect and feed his family. Just imagine if this film were about a concentration-camp guard who expedites the gas chamber (and cleans up afterward) to put cake on the table at home. Would that be acceptable? Why is spectacular murder supposed to be an entertainment where moral outrage can be suspended? 

Illustration by Eevien Tan

The wife is well played by Winona Ryder, who looks older and sadder. (And why not?) Her husband tells her that she reminds him of Natalie Wood except that she is prettier, and this is the single emotional moment in the picture. In life, as you can find out, Kuklinski regularly beat and abused his wife. There was not the clear line of demarcation between what he did at home and at work. The Iceman (he gained that name because of his lack of feeling) is written by Morgan Land and directed by Ariel Vromen. As a story, it is efficient and hideous, like Kuklinski’s killings, and it sees no reason to explore either the man or its own motives in making the film.

The skill with which America makes such movies (though Vromen is Israeli) is an unthinking habit now, and it fits with our cold-blooded aplomb in watching them. Michael Shannon is an immense figure, not just large physically, but looming in the imagination like dread. In his wrestling with his own nature, he is another Charles Laughton. More and more people seem ready to hire Shannon, for his talent and his fearsome clenched look. So I conclude with this thought: that in The Kings of Summer, Nick Offerman plays a father as much at a loss with life as Kuklinski, and made strict and pathetic because of it. He does not think of violence as a solution or an acting out of his turmoil. And so the kids come through, growing up and fond of their world in the woods. America is full of such people, but they are hard to find done as honestly as this on our screens. 

David Thomson is a film critic at The New Republic.