In this fictionalized version — which wisely tampers with facts and dates — we meet Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) as he woos and wins Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder). He seems awkward and strange, but he also displays a touch of childlike charm. When the couple have their first child, he's working in a presumably minimum-wage job in a film distribution/dubbing office. It's actually a porn-film outfit run by mobsters. One day, when Kuklinski gives lip to the owner (
In the film, the central enigma in Kuklinski's life is that his violent, morally inexcusable actions are fueled by his devotion to his family. The real Kuklinski grew up in a miserable home: His father beat one of his brothers to death and also beat his mother; his mother in turn beat him; and his other brother spent most of his life in prison for raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Much of this detail is omitted by the filmmakers. More striking yet is their failure to mention that Kuklinski frequently beat Deborah, which would have weakened their emphasis on his devotion/obsession to his family.
The film succeeds largely on Shannon's performance. For sheer creepiness, it's hard to compete with a real-life monster like Kuklinski, but Shannon is the man for the job. Because of his visage — he looks like a better looking version of
But he's so perfect as Kuklinski that it's hard to imagine who else could have played this role; 20 years ago, Liotta would have been the obvious candidate. Shannon's ability to make us see his internal conflicts while trying to appear impassive is a crucial element. I know: that's why they call it "acting." He also makes us feel empathy without diluting the character's viciousness.
The rest of the cast fares well. In addition to Ryder and Liotta, there's Robert Davi,
But throughout it's Shannon's fearsome presence that keeps us watching, even through the more violent moments.
"The Iceman" opens this week at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.