Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

God’s Lonely Men: Cinema Psychopaths

Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver refers to himself as "God's lonely man." We listen to his spoken diary jottings after he's begun his new occupation, working 12-hour shifts in his cab, making observations about the life around him, and finally hatching his plans to annihilate. One thing we notice about Travis is how much he sees. He gazes from his taxi window at the abundance of life outside, "normal people with other people," and the simple act of gazing works to corroborate with his isolation. It's not just that Travis sees, it is how he sees. The world is transformed through the camera shutter of his mind, and so affects him in reinforcing an outlook that will prove detrimental. I believe Martin Scorsese is trying to convey through Paul Schrader's screenplay how the solipsism of Travis Bickle is a psychosis that film viewers collectively experience in the motion picture theater, just as filmmakers are vehicles of psychosis. The cinema of Scorsese is indeed a cinema of subjectivity in a religious and almost Kierkegaardian sense, and we see the force of subjectivity that bridges character to audience to director elsewhere in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours, GoodFellas, Cape Fear, and in the most sweeping, all-encompassing sense (that is, as a survey of psychological horror in film) in Shutter Island, the title being a pun on cinema's transformative psychology. The Eye matters in Scorsese, but whose Eye is it? God's? One's own quiet superego? Well-adjusted society at large? Just as Scorsese's protagonists gaze with the kind of guilty restraint and excitement only a genuine taboo-laden Catholic can bring to the material, they are conscious of being the object of a gaze, and so are aware of being judged. We notice the imagery of the Panopticon in Shutter Island, a prison where the inhabitants are all under surveillance while the looker is invisible; even the sanctuary where the main characters take cover during a storm has particular attention paid to a stain-glass window with a great Eye. There's the "Eye in the Sky" surveillance camera in Casino, the gossips in The Age of Innocence, paranoid gangsters and wiretaps in GoodFellas, and the overbearing guilt of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Travis Bickle's most conspicuous double in Scorsese's body of work may be Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, who views God as a kind of pain in the neck, with raptor's talons digging through the skull, into the brain, and to the eyes. None of his characters can live out a secular, blasé existence like the larger base group surrounding them. The eye around them irresistibly compels them into the ecstatic stage beyond the ethical. That eye is always embodied by the filmmaker's camera and what it chooses to show us.

Taxi Driver has a new 35th anniversary print to be screened all this weekend at the Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis, and for me the picture holds up by virtue of how completely disturbing it remains. It is still difficult for me to watch, retaining its ugly dreariness after all this time. It is either proof that I'm not desensitized to the atrocities of violence, or that Taxi Driver does violence so much justice in its brutal display of it (most of which is reserved for the end), that it can never be comfortably familiarized. Last week I wrote about how Sidney Lumet made the most outlandish and seemingly antisocial characters close to us; their struggle is our struggle. But Travis Bickle is a harder pill to swallow. We may feel for Travis, but there are moments when his behavior is so embarrassing to watch that we have to look away – or rather, Scorsese does the head turn for us, as when Travis calls Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), who rejected him in the previous scene, from a payphone to ask if she's gotten his flowers. While he's talking, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman's camera slowly tracks to the right, peering down an empty hallway as Travis' voice is still audible. This beguiling camera move conveys how painful it is to watch and listen to Travis, the embodiment of an anti-social hopeless romantic unable to fit into the normal simulacrum of basic human relationships. Though Frank Galvin in The Verdict comes close at times, Lumet's characters are rarely so pitiable. The propeller behind Travis, however, is akin to what drives Lumet's characters, just as it's a common trait among Scorsese protagonists: self-loathing, either conscious or unconscious, which leads to behavior of self-immolation. It's a very Catholic kind of passion cleansing. Taxi Driver has the most gruesome of such "cleansings" (arguably discounting only the bat-beatings concluding Casino), a Renaissance painting of gore and ecstatic despair, estranged from any consoling music while it's happening. It is just pure annihilation, directed outwards as much as it is an inward struggle. There are two ironies about this horrifying climax: after killing a handful of pimps and gangsters, Travis has no bullets left for himself, as his suicide was to end everything; and then this "heroic" act of saving a 12-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), was a second take for Travis in his bid to act as a player in society – he was first intending his bullets to be for Charles Palantine, an idealistic presidential candidate for whom Cybil Shepherd's desirable character works. A disquieting sense we get from Taxi Driver, having been voyeurs to Travis through the whole duration, is that "heroic" vigilante movie violence is rooted in the same sadism as psychotic, antisocial assassination.

It goes without saying that for me Scorsese is, more than possibly our best director, our best film historian-as-director. His pictures are totally conscious of themselves as moving pictures along with the rich history and lineage that precedes them. Shutter Island does not begin with its primary plot incident, but begins with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, through Pabst, James Whale, Val Lewton, Hitchcock, Polanski, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Kubrick's The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, and David Lynch. We can enjoy them as entertainments, but if we bring ourselves to them as active viewers they, like any great film, only grow richer and more multivaried in dimension. Taxi Driver was an important entry into his body of work. After a well regarded student film (Who's That Knocking at My Door?), a Roger Corman exploitation film (Boxcar Bertha), a major independent critical success (Mean Streets), and an award-winning 'women's picture' (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Taxi Driver was a long-in-development acquired project produced under the auspices of Julia and Michael Philips made into a completely personal venture for the director. It's just as naked for Scorsese as it is for Paul Schrader, who wrote the first draft in a matter of days following a bad breakup and nearly suicidal immersion into depression. Both men, Scorsese and Schrader, were very introspective – maybe too introspective in the Dostoyevskian sense – men from religious backgrounds, rubbing shoulders with the drug and sex ridden terrain of 1970s Hollywood. They both loved movies, and had the kind of arm's length distance from their peers that some chronic moviegoers have, thinking of Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer. They are accustomed to viewing, watching, seeing, gazing, and observing more than commingling.

In Travis, both filmmakers sublimated their pressures and deepest anxieties as self-destructive outsiders. Travis too spends too much time in movie theaters and TV, though the content of the screen seems completely unrelated to how he acts. He goes into porn houses and watches. He is not titillated, however much affected he may be. The grotesqueness of what Travis sees in his enthrallment to images must have some kind of outlet when accompanied with his pathology. We observe a sick man who processes the world around him as a movie, with the beautiful leading lady (Cybil Shepherd), the evil Comanche (the pimp Sport, played by Harvey Keitel), and the young girl in need of rescuing (Iris). Travis' taxi is his horse, carrying him through like a pale rider through the smoky flames of hell. A key model for Taxi Driver is John Ford's 1955 western The Searchers, where John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a crusty, hard-hearted racist Civil War veteran bent on rescuing his niece from Apaches: Harvey Keitel's Sport wears his hair like the Apache antagonist Scar in The Searchers, Travis Bickle is a Vietnam vet, and his own racism is understood in Scorsese's trademark fast-frame-rate cuts to his perspective, the camera gliding over pimped-out African American characters and fetishizing their bling. Sport even calls Travis "cowboy" upon meeting him, and later on tells him to fuck off "back to your tribe." New York, the center of civilization, is the Wild West. Iris is the squaw bride, Natalie Wood in The Searchers, tainted by her marriage to the Apaches.

Scorsese wants us to recall John Wayne in The Searchers in his connection of the Duke to Travis Bickle. Are both men psychopaths? Taxi Driver may have earnest questions about how we view movie heroes and their structural components regarding the mechanisms and tropes of filmmaking. It's here where I twist back to the kernel of my discussion this week, the Film Psychopath, whose chief flaw is the compulsion of his demanding subjectivity. We are safe, normal, divided from those compulsions and that subjective power by the large and shining screen. It is a cliché to say that we are complicit in the psychopath's sadism as viewers, and in many cases we stick around to see them get their comeuppance. But even then, good examples being The Silence of the Lambs or Seven, we are asked to ponder the nature of compulsion and established attitudes regarding good and evil. Like Sex Movies, there are too many good Psychotics in Film to give a satisfying survey in the brief space we have here. But I want to contemplate them for a little bit in this connection to how we approach film as viewers, in addition to the comforts of our established moral binaries that separate us from them. As Teddy Daniels says of the criminally insane inmates on Shutter Island, "Screw their sense of calm." But, as Teddy – real name Andrew Laeddis – learns in his adventure as so many Scorsesean characters do (Howard Hughes in The Aviator being another favorite example), the mind is an unconquerable foe, its machinery working independently from our free will. How did Travis Bickle become Travis? How did John Hinckley become John Hinckley? Norman Bates? Jared Loughner? The Columbine killers? Hannibal Lecter/Lecktor? The Zodiac? Shutter Island ends with the Dinah Washington vocal "This Bitter Earth," which sums up the "life of the mind," as Barton Fink's decapitating psychopath Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) puts it, but these varied manifestations of derangement call attention to how inscrutable, unknowable, and uncertain our true existence is, in spite of whatever daily consolation and banal habituations. We see and we want to know and possess objects of certainty. On this bitter earth, we never can.


Discounting the metaphors of specters and vampires, the deranged serial killer had its best early film treatment in Fritz Lang's first sound film, M (1931), where Peter Lorre plays a freakishly bug-eyed child molester and murderer terrorizing Berlin. M exemplifies the effective norms that will come to be the serial-psychopath story archetypes. For one thing, Lang is able to create more horror by the mere insinuation of horrible things that are more speculative than verifiable. We hear of missing children, and we see worried parents. Lang begins his film by following the latest in a string of young victims, playing catch with an unseen whistling figure, and then purchases her a humanoid balloon. Tension increases with the frenzied mother screaming for the child who failed to emerge home with classmates. There is no music (this was before music became ubiquitous in sound film), and we hardly need it. All we need to see is the little girl's ball rolling out of the bushes down a hill, and the balloon now caught hanging by itself in electrical wires.

That Lang leaves so much to the imagination makes the suspense much more potent. He fills in the specifics with vague insinuation: 'These children disappear without a trace. And when they're found…well, we all know the state in which we found them." M is a cinematic marvel with its fantastic camera set-ups and complex tracking shots, but narratively it anticipates successors of its genre in how it masterfully outlines the social networks of detection, bridging different institutions while a city is held in fear of something unnamable. We observe that not only are the police desperate in their search for the killer, but so are the organized crime rings. The crackdowns by police are complicating the smooth logistics of criminality. "We run our business in order to survive," the gangsters remark. But this killer is governed by something hidden in his consciousness. We have the ancestor of forensic drama in M, as police look for specific clues, and handwriting is analyzed by experts (his writing is "a form of acting," one such expert claims). The path of detection thus opens M to the intrinsic dynamic of a psychopath's motivation as distinguished from the logistical "survival" of the workaday criminal. The killer here is not an "organized" occupational criminal. He is driven by compulsion, not choice or anything logical (i.e. money).

Peter Lorre's character is a detestable creature, and his impish qualities make us readily hate him all the more and desire to see his punishment realized. He looks in the mirror and makes monstrous faces to himself, just after the forensic expert comments on how his writing is a form of acting. This man lives through social masks obscuring his abnormal compulsions. But possibly, after the terror, hatred, and revulsion, we may feel even pity. As the image of a new victim takes hold of his mind and a kind of sexual ecstasy is cast over his face with maddening desire, he stops at a café and tries drinking himself into a safe distraction, irritably whistling while doing so. We must acknowledge that he is desperate in his need for release from his enthrallment. His consciousness is a combat area where his ego is feeble.

M climaxes after the killer's been captured by the gangsters, who have set up a kangaroo court with which to give him a proper death sentence. Lorre is both the cockroach that we instinctively want him to be, and a complex human being who lays down his desperate confession: "But I can't help it! What would you know what you are talking about? Who are you anyway? Who are you? All of you? Criminals. Probably proud of it, too. Proud you can crack into a safe, or sneak into houses or cheat at cards. All of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you weren't such lazy pigs. But me? Can I do anything about it? Don't I have this cursed thing inside of me? This fire, this voice, this agony? I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently, but I still hear it. Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run – run away from myself! But I can't! I can't escape from myself! I must take the path that it's driving me down and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of mothers and children. They never go away, they're always there! Always! Always! Always! Except…when I'm doing it…when I…Then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster reading what I've done. I read and read. I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore! Help! I can't! I can't! I can't! I can't."

Lang is opening up a large social and moral problem for his audience. Our institutions, like our basic thought processes, are governed by a streamlined structural logic that relies on mechanical predictability. But insanity or base human compulsion, such as we see in Peter Lorre's character, fouls the perfection of our structures up. There is no free will for this character, which is why we have asylums. And yet this gives no justice to the bereaved, or satisfies our own hunger to see him punished. The psycho killer reminds us that our certainties are not reliable, and that logical predictability is an illusion, and that justice is not a cut and dried concept.

The mad killer was made something more than human in subsequent films released by Hollywood, in figures like Dracula, Mr. Hyde, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and in Val Lewton's Cat People and The Leopard Man. The horrific act of murder or molestation without monetary motive allows our imaginations to run wild, and to satisfy our fearful ruminations there is a supernatural explanation – the only way we can adequately comprehend this revolting specter of the incomprehensible. However, in 1960 Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho gave the monster a human center. The monstrosities of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) are based in all-too-human problems and psychological malformations.

Given how legendary Psycho is (canonically it is nestled in the same arena with Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey), I'm less interested in deconstructing Norman's psychology than in comparing the film's legacy to another work released only months before, and which I consider even greater. Peeping Tom was, like Psycho, a film about a psychotic whose debilitation is related to a sexual problem stemming from corrupted parenting. But also like Psycho it is a film about filmmaking and film viewing. Whereas Psycho, though greeted initially with some critical reluctance, worked to further bolster Hitchcock's legacy, being a box office smash and garnering him his final Oscar nomination, Peeping Tom ended the career of the similarly revered British director Michael Powell (The 49th Parallel; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; The Red Shoes; Tales of Hoffman; Black Narcissus). The critical establishment immediately labeled Peeping Tom as obscene and outlandishly awful, and it barely received distribution in America after bombing in England. Its rough response influenced Hitchcock in not having any pre-screenings for the all-too-similar Psycho.

Psycho bears the gothic elements of the dark old house on the hill, mysterious rooms and basements, and women in peril. But it also wants the audience to be engaged with Norman Bates, accomplishing this by its handling of cinematic grammar. Psycho famously changes on a dime when the picture's point-of-view hastily shifts from Janet Leigh's desirable gal on the lam to that of her murderer (or conspiratorial accomplice in death, as we are initially led to believe that her killer is the unseen and elderly Mrs. Bates). The secret language of film sutures us into Norman's need to dispose with the body just as the selectivity of sounds, camera angles, and edits manipulates us in the picture's construction of a particular reality: for though there is no Mrs. Bates, why do we hear her? That's not Anthony Perkins' voice, after all. Psycho was made for Hitchcock's fellow directors, as it is aware of its trickery and its gazes. The audience is lured into the forbidden excitement of that gaze, as when Norman spies on Janet Leigh through a peephole, or when the notorious shower murder occurs (which is laced with sexual excitement).

As with M, Hitchcock shows the two sides of criminality. Janet Leigh is a criminal of her own free will. She steals $40,000 from her employer in the bid to start a new life with her lover (John Gavin). But Norman Bates, the antagonist, has no free will. He did not, as Norman Bates, commit volitional murder. We learn from the psychiatrist at the conclusion of the picture that Norman never recovered from his father's death, eventually killing both his mother and her new lover. Psycho is aware of the uncomfortable paradox inherent within the observation of an unsavory character. Some alien force takes over poor Norman when the right elements pull a trigger; he cannot resist action. He is the collective shadow reconfiguring reality out of hidden psychological buffers from the awful truth, the same way that he evidently makes great effort in stuffing and posing birds of prey as a taxidermist.
Peeping Tom has all of these characteristics, but Michael Powell, working from Leo Marx's screenplay, exaggerates the elements even more, which is rather extraordinary when one considers how stylized Hitchcock's films are. Peeping Tom drills a point home that human beings are all puzzles, or riddles to be decoded – significant when we understand that screenwriter Marx was a code breaker during World War II. The mechanisms of film production – the lens, the shutter, the film, the light, the sounds, the movement, the edits, the projection – are like the mechanics of human mental processing. Film, like the mind, can be deconstructed, though the reduction into base elements may not make things any more fathomable. Throughout its duration, Peeping Tom suggests inherently filthy things that we would rather not discuss – or which we cannot discuss.

Peeping Tom begins with a camera viewfinder following a rather lethargic prostitute in London. She seems to take little pleasure in her work, setting her apart from the typical desirable female in movies. The cameraman wants to draw attention to himself, showing the film stock package he purchased before throwing into the trash. He follows the prostitute into an apartment, and the camera slowly moves in on her. We hear a loud snap. The prostitute is alerted. She screams and the camera closes in on her horrified expression. The credits begin to the film being replayed in a projection room, the cameraman's eye restlessly gazing in masturbatory fascination.

Powell does not hide the murderer from us. We see most of the film from the perspective of photographer and focus puller Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm). What fascinates and disturbs, beyond that ready agency with a psychotic murderer, is the motive or trigger for his murderous compulsion – and then his elaborate method of murder. Mark impales women with his tripod, the camera filming them as they are able to see their reflections in a mirror perched above the lens. Mark is alerted to looks of seduction and instinctively attaches the object of desire to fear. He is turned on by the fear and wants to capture the moment in death, piercing the façade of sexual enticement and making it his own. Mark is one of cinema's first cyborgs, the camera being an implementation completing him.

Mark also fits neatly into the murderous psychopath paradigm. He's a poor and awkward social performer, not at ease in his own skin, struggling to put words together. He spends too much time contemplating the moment, aestheticizing it and wanting to make it perfect until it's reduced to mere simulation. He is surrounded by life, in his photography studio (with nudie models) and on the big film studio where he works as a focus puller and aspires to be a director – but is unable to live within it. He looks at it, he fetishizes it. The camera eye – which bears no distinction from his own eye – keeps him apart. These are traits we also see in Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Francis Dollarhyde, Mark's closest film relative, in Manhunter. In aestheticizing life, they have stepped out of it. They are disallowed normal human relationships and lack the normal capacity to cope with loneliness. Interestingly, all three of these classic lonely psychopaths turn to cinema, filmed images, for fulfillment: Travis in his porno theater, Francis with his stolen and reconstructed home movies of the families he will terrorize, and Mark with his films starring sexually desirable victims. (I should also point out Zodiac, where it is insinuated that the Zodiac was heavily influenced by the 1932 film, The Most Dangerous Game; Robert Graysmith also finds himself in a creepy film collector's basement, one of the film's most chilling scenes).

Mark's life becomes complicated when he starts a friendship, tinged with attraction, with a (deliberately plain looking, I believe) woman, Helen (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her blind mother (Maxine Audley). Mark allows her into his private screenining-room apartment and shows her some "home movies" that his father, a respected scientist, made. Director Powell plays the father, seen on the periphery of the old films which unflinchingly keep a firm gaze on the young boy Mark as he grows up. Helen is the basic vehicle for the audience: just as we typically want to understand what we are seeing in a movie (we don't generally deal so well with ambiguity), she wants to understand what Mark's films are actually documenting. As the films continue, her – and our – unease becomes more pronounced, complemented by the frenetic piano playing on the soundtrack and the hyperbolic performance by Boehm. We see that the father photographed young Mark to the extent that the boy's own voyeurism – our most private aspect of growing up - is captured on film. The father's camera peers at the adolescent Mark, who is secretly viewing a couple groping on a park bench. We learn that Mark's father also filmed the mother's death and burial, in addition to the marriage with "her successor" six weeks later (the same length of time it took for Hamlet's mother Gertrude to marry Claudius, and which is another startling coincidence connecting Peeping Tom to Psycho).

The canisters of the film, the projector, the lenses – all of the gadgets which we think of as mere objects, are understood by Mark to be elements that decode the enigma of a hidden and inscrutable self (Screenwriter Leo Marx was a code breaker during World War II, and the thrill of code breaking is a recurring theme in these psycho murderer pictures). And maybe we see elements of our own – albeit benign – pathology regarding viewing and gazing in Mark Lewis' story. The images of female enticement are mass produced by Hollywood or major market studios (Sucker Punch?). We could argue that voyeurism is not harmful – it's what cinema is, isn't it? This was a big theme in Psycho as much as it was central to Citizen Kane. But there is an almost pathological system of repression in our gazing, a bourgeois denial, such as we see in the old man purchasing some "views" (naked pictures) along with his newspaper at the corner store where Mark shoots his naughty photos. Maybe what we see as arbitrary affects us more than we would give it credit. Certainly, Psycho means to call attention to that bourgeois denial, being that it was the first Hollywood film to feature a flushing toilet – something long forbidden. Roman Polanski's Repulsion also shares many characteristics with Hitchcock and Powell, with its focus on gazing, childhood sexual trauma, and polite – though randy – society coming into contact with pure carnality. We are naïve to passively intake all of this cinema, perhaps, and deny that our own process of observation is unchanged. The damaging insinuation for Mark, estranged from any kind of normal existence, is how he can only experience sexual gratification through gazing, which becomes murderous. His whole life is a film set – and Peeping Tom wants to call attention to its own ironies of its being a film about films. When the filmmakers for whom Mark works as a focus puller, producing a big budget bourgeois melodrama, feel that they require something funny for a scene, Michael Powell pulls it off for them in the most sinister fashion. The characters in the scene, while rehearsing, discover the corpse of one of Mark's victims, a beautiful stand-in. The moment is as hilarious as it is chilling, its meta-movie implications beckoning us into a deliberation regarding Peeping Tom's insinuations regarding cinema.

Mark Lewis' tragedy is that he wants to photograph his own instincts, which one never can. He wants to make a film that communicates how he feels. He tries this in other arenas of his life – as a photographer of sexualized models – but is chastised by his employer for being too artsy. His horror show of murder is not a cry for help but is a personal testament. The psychopath wants to communicate his experience, solipsistically recording it and making it permanent. Everything is coded, and nothing is arbitrary (traits we will wrestle with in Fincher's Seven and its opposite, Zodiac; Manhunter; and which leads me to think back to Lang's M, where the murderer evidently sent letters to the press, a contradiction to his confession). Lewis is then interested in photographing the police investigating his murders, up to the point that they're close on his trail. Peeping Tom ends with his suicide, a staged moment he has rehearsed and timed out countless times. He merges with his art, with the film that has dictated his entire existence, and is completed in his process of becoming.

Peeping Tom, closing with the hypothetical film director's suicide, is so a fitting – if nevertheless unfortunate – endnote for a great filmmaker's career, as Powell was never able to recover: his own masterpiece (albeit one of a few) was his professional suicide. Luckily, Martin Scorsese became one of Peeping Tom's champions and with other admirers worked to find it an audience. It is now widely considered a masterpiece. Some dissenters still decry its outlandishness, but again this is a complaint on the picture's intended ironies, as a fictional film that wants to call attention to the notion of artifice. It's never explained, for example, why a German is playing the lead role of a man who has been evidently raised in England (and whose father is voiced by the very British Powell). Quite obviously, Boehm is one of Powell's own individual mechanisms to be decoded in the larger deconstructive picture, along with his music, cutting, lighting, colors, and camera movements. Mark Lewis is an off-kilter human being, incomplete in his deformation. So is Peeping Tom.


Hannibal Lecter, conceived by the novelist Thomas Harris and featured in four of his books, is America's most famous cinematic psychopathic serial killer. His legacy is indebted to the pop iconography of Sir Anthony Hopkins' indelibly creepy performance, the actor's skill integral to the character's endurance every bit as much as Frankenstein's Creature perhaps owes more to Boris Karloff than to Mary Shelley. When thinking about Lector, he lingers in the horrorshow portrait gallery alongside the supernatural monsters, and he in fact comes across with a kind of supernatural omniscience. Unlike so many other previous film psychos, who are allotted their vulnerabilities and all-too-humanness, Lecter is the seer in the world's Panopticon, controlling and observing all. Even in his enclosed cell he is able to masterfully orchestrate the exertion of his will wherever and on whomever he chooses.

Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs took its influence from the Hammer horror films of the 1960s, so its gothic character is worn on the sleeve, from music to lighting to production design. Hopkins' Lecter is effectively chilling when he toys with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), or anyone else who presumes to converse with him, even making us nervously giggle when he utters his devilish one-liners, from the malevolent (the Chianti line) to the harmless ("Love your suit.") Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally make a monster, paying special attention to Lector's cannibalism. He's a concoction of fear, but also incredibly affable. He could be manipulating Clarice, who is chosen by FBI Chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to find a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), in forcing her to confront her own childhood demons. But he is also helping her find her quarry, just as he is liberating her from her repressed trauma. He was a psychiatrist, after all, and a good one. He just ate a few too many of his patients. We could rationalize liking him, even making him heroic. After all, he needs to butcher his guards in order to escape the abuse of the slimy Dr. Chilton, a character who gets none of our sympathy – and who we recognize in the film's closing moments will be Lector's freshest victim.

The true antagonist of the story, Buffalo Bill, a transsexual outcast who targets and skins girthy women, is far from affable or sympathetic. He has no inwardness, whereas Lecter is a completely conscious individual, as wise to his deviant behavior as he is reconciled with it. Consequently, for me Buffalo Bill is a weak link in the dramatic weight The Silence of the Lambs presumes to offer. Of course, that is a minor flaw considering that the major thrust of the film's story is contained within Clarice's private journey, to which Lector serves as a guiding Virgil (he has very little screen time). But for all of The Silence of the Lambs' perfection in suspenseful execution, there is – again for me, anyway – a certain lack of richness to it.

The Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards for 1991, sweeping all the top categories. It is really the only film of its kind to do so (the previous thriller to win was 1971's The French Connection – but again, that's about logical criminals: drug runners, not morbid psychopaths). Thomas Harris' sequel came in book form nearly 10 years later. Hannibal followed Lecter's fugitive adventures and Clarice's pursuit of him, while one of Lecter's victims, the millionaire Mason Verger, uses her as bait to capture his adversary. Dino DeLaurentiis was quick to snag the movie rights (Lambs' studio, Orion, had long since shuffled down this mortal coil), but the extreme nature of the book's content had trouble luring back many of the original creative team. DeLaurentiis replaced writer Ted Tally with Schindler's List scribe Steven Zaillian, Jonathan Demme with Ridley Scott, and Jodie Foster with Julianne Moore. The impeccable Gary Oldman was cast as Verger, and Ray Liotta was to be Starling's FBI nemesis. No matter. The only element DeLaurentiis needed to ensure success was Hopkins, here given much more screen time, along with more playful murders to boot, such as Giancarlo Giannini's poor sap who tries to catch Hannibal and ends up hanged with his intestines smashing to the ground.

Such gruesomeness kind of explains why Demme, Tally, and Foster were reticent to reunite on this material. Hannibal does not approach the dramatic engagement of The Silence of the Lambs, as Moore plays Clarice like she's on autopilot. This is not detrimental to the film's success, being that Hopkins, Oldman, and director Scott seem to be having a devilishly good time cackling to the material, celebrating it as irresistible camp. However, that's also contributive to why, when set alongside the other films I've been talking about, Hannibal is kind of a silly chapter in the serial killer genre. Like other Ridley Scott pictures, it is an effort of fine craftsmanship – almost too fine. The frivolous material makes for quality voyeurism to an audience curious to get closer with Hannibal Lecter, laughing with him along the way (particularly when he feeds some of Ray Liotta's brain to a child during a plane ride). That so little about Hannibal is disquieting is a debit to its credit. It's a highly entertaining and sometimes disgusting camp film, and little more.

DeLaurentiis' new contract with Anthony Hopkins had the producer milk one more Harris novel, Red Dragon, the first of Hannibal Lecter's stories. This was to be sold as a prequel, taking place not too long after Lecter was originally captured by the maverick FBI forensics specialist, Will Graham (Edward Norton). A new string of mysterious serial murders are transpiring, committed by a man the Bureau have called the "Tooth Fairy." Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) lures Graham out of his retirement to find the Tooth Fairy, who is revealed to be a psychopath named Francis Dollarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a child abuse who now butchers whole families. Released in 2002, Red Dragon was directed by Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame), a far cry from Ridley Scott or Jonathan Demme, though Ted Tally returned to write the screenplay. Red Dragon is a very plot driven movie, but that is its key flaw. Indeed, Harris' story is too good to miss, and Fiennes gives his all in creating Dollarhyde, but the picture is flatter than Hannibal. None of the characters succeed in making much of an impression, even when cast by great actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman (as scummy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds), Emily Watson (as Reba, the blind woman who falls in love with Dollarhyde), and Mary Louise Parker (as Molly, Graham's wife). Hopkins, meanwhile, plays Lecter exclusively as a camp novelty.

I am prejudiced, however. I have discussed three Hannibal Lecter films released from 1991-2002, but have failed to mention the best adaptation of Thomas Harris' work. In the 1980s, DeLaurentiis had the rights to Red Dragon and produced a film version of it, originally to be directed by David Lynch but then eventually written and completed by Michael Mann. Because of failed martial arts movies released at the time, DeLaurentiis unfortunately demanded it be retitled. It was released, received mixed to good reviews, and disappeared quickly. In time, its regard and cult following grew. I now believe it is the best genre movie of the 1980s, and possibly my favorite in the psychopath/forensics genre (though Zodiac gives it a run for its money), highly preferring it to The Silence of the Lambs. I'm referring to Manhunter.


It would seem that a relatively low-budget movie like the $13 million marquee-star-free Manhunter would pale in comparison to the prestige of the $80 million all-star Red Dragon. William Peterson is no Edward Norton, Tom Noonan is no Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Lang is no Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Dennis Farina is no Harvey Keitel. A comparison and contrast of Manhunter to Red Dragon is a great study for how a director's vision works with the same material. Though the work of different screenwriters (Mann and Tally), the book is cinematic enough to lead both films to often be felt as if they were taken from the same screenplay (though Mann wisely eliminates many preposterous plot points from the book, the climax being the best example). More interestingly, they both have the same cinematographer, Dante Spinotti. But whereas Red Dragon briskly moves along with its plot and suspense thriller tropes in terms of how it uses lighting, music, editing, and sound, every element in Manhunter is able to be savored again and again: the compositions, the colors of window blinds behind a character, Mel Bourne's amazing production design, the moody synthesizer music, the highly experimental editing and sound. All this could at first be perceived as a flaw of over-stylization; indeed, whereas The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon come off as gothic horror, Manhunter feels like a cousin to the New German Cinema of the 1970s. But this criticism is off-set by two things: Mann is totally invested in his characters and his meticulous research reveals itself in the slightest nuances of his performers; (even the fantastic Fiennes feels trivial and shallow when compared to Noonan's Dollarhyde; and Ed Norton's Graham seems to have no struggle whatsoever); and secondly, the aestheticism of the film is integral to the substance, being that Francis Dollarhyde, one of cinema's great creepy gazers, looks and then elevates or perverts everything that he sees. Like Mark Lewis, he is a filmic cyborg and what we see in Manhunter is filtered through a lens of complete aestheticism.

The very first image of Manhunter is inscrutable. It looks like metal, but it remains a completely abstract view, puzzling as to why the director would select it. Only later on will we recognize it as an angle on Dollarhyde's van. But as the image cuts to a hand-held video camera moving through what is a large suburban house at night and finally resting its flashlit gaze on the face of a woman waking in bed, we should understand that Michael Mann wants us to contemplate what we are seeing through the camera viewfinder, the same way the first image of The Insider (1999) – Lowell Bergman's perspective beneath a thick blindfold – calls our attention to how images work to construct reality. It is constructed images that ultimately also convince Will Graham (William Petersen) to go against his better judgment and the wishes of his wife Molly (Kim Greist), and take on the Tooth Fairy case. In the gorgeous beach setting, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) slips Graham some photographs of the victims during moments of domestic tranquility. Crawford understands that Graham is a sympathetic investigator. His talent is in his ability to emotionally come close to victims (particularly now, living in his own domestic tranquility), but he also has the ability to channel, and so understand and even adopt, the thought patterns of the perpetrator. When his investigative sympathy turns over, he sees as the killer sees and he interprets without editing himself while entering an ugly terrain.

Graham's most recent success was the cause for his retirement. He is the man who caught Hannibal Lecktor (Mann has spelled the doctor's name differently), and he used his "mind-set" method in order to do so, suffering near life threatening wounds in the process. He tells his son, "After my body got better, I still had his thoughts in my head…They're the ugliest thoughts in the world." Crawford may be Graham's friend, but he is also treading thin water enlisting by enlisting him. The threat is not even so much Graham's physical safety, but the possibility of psychological relapse.

His first night of investigation, Mann pays particularly close attention to Graham's use of Bureau gadgets to help – his voice recorder, a camera, a VTR, etc. He is using the tools of detection and listing down the objective facts of the latest murder. Gradually he becomes frustrated. While he watches home videos of the two families, side by side, he gives up and calls Molly so that he can have a safe anchor to his authentic self. After hanging up, he begins his transformation and simulates the killer's thoughts. Note how the television on the left side of the frame increasingly pushes Graham off, as if he was losing himself to the killer's own mechanisms. His method gives him a realization pertaining to the Tooth Fairy's pathology: after killing the families and placing mirror pieces over their eyes, he took his gloves off and touched the eyes of the dead wives, a place no post-mortem specialist would presume to dust for fingerprints. Graham's insight proves correct.

In Atlanta, location of the most recent murder, a detective says to Graham and Crawford, "I know a burglar's going to fence what he stole, because his motive is cash money. I know his motive, so I go to work on fences. This guy we don't even have motive. None of us have shit, and we know it." This is an explication of the serial killer dilemma going back to M, as there is no traceable logic to the crime. But as Graham says, "[His motive is] in his dreams. His act fuels his fantasy." The problem is locating the fantasy. To come closer (and so beginning a kind of downward spiral), Graham decides to visit his old nemesis, Lecktor.

Though Anthony Hopkins will always be remembered as Lector, Brian Cox in Manhunter is no less excellent. Both performances are inflections of the method by which the respective directors tell their story. Hopkins is a showy and spectacular creep, a portrait from a horror gallery exhibition. His cell is a lair belonging to gothic literature. But Brian Cox is detached, observant, and curious. Hopkins' stoicism has a laser-focused intensity as he stares down his prey, but Cox more affably lures us close and makes him quietly dangerous. His tone is more conversational, and thus his lethality is intensified by virtue of how blandly undangerous he appears. The first scene between Graham and Lecktor, as the doctor peruses the Tooth Fairy files, is mainly a collection of shot-reverse-shot close-ups on the two men's faces. But as Graham is pulled into conversation with Lecktor, notice how Mann comes closer to breaking the 180 degree rule of reverse shots of the faces framed between the bars: Lecktor and Graham are both behind bars, one in the same. "The reason you caught me, Will," Lecktor tells Graham, "is we're just alike. You want the scent? Smell yourself."

Lecktor is a master of disguise. He excels in making his identity plastic, and so untraceable, as when he uses his right for a private phone call to his lawyer to reconnect the line (using a gum wrapper) to the FBI, and thereby finding Will Graham's home address, which he can send – through private ads in a trashy tabloid – to the Tooth Fairy. The civilized markers that separate a sane man from madness are understood by Lecktor as being meaningless. This is the threat to Will Graham's well being. Is his family-man law-enforcing persona simply a veneer, obscuring the dark aspects that enable him to identify with his quarry? Graham is breaking from time, from logical and assumed predictability, a notion Mann communicates in his deliberately rough cutting, which sometimes does not match with a previous shot (such as we see in a grocery store, and how the boxes of cereal change behind Graham and his son) or when Graham pulls his gun on a possible suspect. This could be interpreted as a flub, but the logistics of continuity cutting interest Mann greatly, particularly in the context of Manhunter which has a subtext about filmed images and how they corrupt reality. Mann's interest in the language of editing – heavily influenced by early Soviet cinema (Eisenstein, Vertov) – will then explode in the picture's "In A Gadda Da Vida" climax.

At about 70 minutes into Manhunter, the whole film breaks off from its original course and pattern. Up to this point, the Tooth Fairy has been a mystery to us, though gradually his own perspective is allowed to get closer to us, beginning with the Tattler newspaper photographed that he will – off screen – read; later, we actually see the hand of the Tooth Fairy angrily grab a copy that has the headline "FBI Pursues Pervert," written by the scummy reporter, Freddie Lounds (Stephen Lang). Finally, we see the Tooth Fairy as a monster. He is half-masked, having taken Lounds hostage. He forces his victim to read into a tape recorder a pertinent warning to Graham, and shortly after (once more off screen) murders him. The film's motifs of seeing are heavily displayed in this scene, where Lounds is convinced he's dead if the Tooth Fairy takes off his mask, and so is reticent to open his eyes. "If you don't open your eyes, I'll staple them to your forehead," the Tooth Fairy tells the shaking Lounds. He then shows Lounds slides of his victims, in addition to some significant William Blake drawings: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun. "Mr. Lounds, you're a reporter. You're job here is to report. That's why you're here." Of course, Lounds does not have to be alive in order to report. His enflamed body on a wheelchair, accompanied by his recorded voice, will do plenty of talking.

In his murders, the Tooth Fairy is communicating his fantasies. He is, like the other great psychopaths, in a process of becoming, and he has projected his identity onto a particular mythological archetype (the Red Dragon). Lounds is just a reporter to him, and the families are "elements undergoing change" in conjunction with the killer's "becoming." Nevertheless, he is still mysterious to us. For the first 70 minutes of the film, he is essentially an antagonistic serial killer lacking any immediate complexity (much like Buffalo Bill), seeing all from an omniscient, wide angle gaze, a feeling reinforced by the way Mann and Dante Spinotti use the widescreen picture frame.

But then, as I said, something happens. Graham has come close to reaching the killer's mindset, and so appropriately Mann shifts his focus totally away from Graham and we are intimately set alongside the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dollarhyde, whose day job is apparently supervising a photographic lab. The Panoptical murderer, such as we understand Lecktor and have up until now understood the Tooth Fairy, is a very meek and vulnerable human being, noticeably ill at ease with members of the opposite sex. Played by Tom Noonan in a way that evokes both Max Schreck's and Klaus Kinski's respective Nosferatus (there is definitely a vampirical aspect to the Tooth Fairy), awkwardly tall and hulking with a slouch, thinning blonde hair, and a cleft lip, Dollarhyde's inwardness has become a disease. Wearing sunglasses, he peers at a photo of his next victim and then stands up straight with a kind of overcompensating pride. This is part of his illness: Dollarhyde is unable to communicate and is plagued by a kind of severe low self esteem that forces his ego to make gross demands: we see it in his loud clothing and in his oddly decorated house of obtuse angles, just as we see it in his murders where families are butchered and assembled to look like they are accepting of him.

There is a problem of speech for Dollarhyde. Like Mark Lewis and Travis Bickle,, he is not able to express himself like a normal person: they all must show you things (Powell and Scorsese insinuate that most film directors suffer from this same neurosis). He watches and gazes, but does not converse – something that may have a stem from the shame of his cleft lip. But then he meets Reba (Joan Allen), a blind woman – who cannot see him – working in his company's dark room. She handles the films he is developing (of his victims), but cannot see their content ("The activities of nocturnal animals," is how he describes them to her). He makes a move on her by offering a ride home, and she responds positively – but she makes an interesting remark on his speech patterns. "You know, you speak very well. Although you avoid fricatives and sibilance." He's offended by what she says and she detects his hurt. "Can I touch your face? I just want to see if you're smiling or frowning." He stops her hand and says grimly, "Take my word for it. I'm smiling."

Dollarhyde arranges a quick date with Reba, which becomes an interesting platform for symbolic exchange. He takes her to an animal doctor, where she is able to nestle against a tranquilized tiger about to undergo a tooth operation. Dollarhyde is overcome while watching Reba listen to the animal's heart beat. This is a person he can observe who cannot observe him, while at the same time be accepted by her in the light of reality. She is, for the first time, a viable, practical manifestation of Blake's Woman Clothed With the Sun to his Red Dragon. He takes her home with him, and she sits beside him while he watches his edited films spotlighting the next victim. The film has been spliced to show an attractive mother in a swimsuit handling an infant, played in a kind of loop. The film titillates Dollarhyde, and he slowly looks at Reba's body while his excitation grows, first at her breasts, then her legs and groin.

Quite unexpectedly, as if Dollarhyde were suddenly the star in his own erotic movie, Reba becomes the aggressive party. She smothers him with a kiss, which startles him and then renders him almost inert, like he was completely unsure how to respond. The scene cuts to Dollarhyde's bedroom as Reba begins making love to him. The song playing on the soundtrack is Shriekback's "This Big Hush," which further plays into Manhunter's deliberations on communication and Dollarhyde's inability to do so. The lovemaking between Reba and Francis is his first taste of a real relationship, or any sense of normal kinship or intimacy with another person. But even he must realize the tragedy implicit within its inception. He looks at her sleeping, uncertain and completely wavered from his steadfast serial killer archetype. He places her hand over his mouth and begins to weep. A relationship with Reba is a momentary lapse of his pathology. The truth of who he is and what he has done can never be spoken to her. To communicate, for him, means to kill. "Francis" the man is more of a construct than the Red Dragon is. The next morning he finds her standing outside and embraces her, pleading that she not go back in the house (as if it were a cursed place; indeed Mel Bourne's production design for Dollarhyde's house conveys his state of mind, with a scrambled television, lunar wallpaper, and an absence of right angles). "It's because you look so good in the sun," he tells her, not only a reference to his William Blake fetish but also reinforcing his incessant aesthetication of reality. And an aesthetically realized moment, as we learn elsewhere in Peeping Tom and Taxi Driver, is simply the futile bid to make neurotic compulsion a permanent reality. It cannot ever happen.

Graham begins to understand the Tooth Fairy's Becoming, saying to himself in a rhetorical conversation with his quarry, "You think that what you do will make you into something different. You are becoming. What is it you think you're becoming? The answer's in the way you use the mirrors. What do the mirrors make you dream you're becoming?" The first major clue to solving the puzzle comes surprisingly from Lecktor, who continues to pester Graham about the possibilities of the agent being just as compulsively murderous as Lecktor. "We don't invent our natures. They're issued to us, along with our lungs and pancreas. Why fight it?" He tells Graham that killing feels good to men like the Tooth Fairy, Lecktor, and Graham. And why shouldn't it? God does it all the time. Lecktor is coding his communication regarding the Tooth Fairy in his thesis on God: "It feels good, Will, because God has power. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is." In other words, the Tooth Fairy is looking for power, acceptance, and love. And if he continues to set up his victims as corpse puppet families, seeing himself in their mirrored eyes, he will eventually become one who is loved, desired, and accepted.

The compulsion rules the ego, though. Francis has a date with Reba, but immediately his brain mechanisms work to transform reality and create things that are not there. He sees a coworker drop Reba off at her apartment. The man reaches for Reba's face to wipe some pollen off, but in Francis' mind something completely different has taken place. Reba and the man are transformed into lovers, the whole moment elevated as a new reality, like cinema. The strong music choice for the scene, The Prime Movers' "Strong as I Am," is an effective non-diegetic tool that both communicates how an outside influence (a pop song) influences a cinematic moment while simultaneously having lyrics conveying Dollarhyde's attitude, his overcompensating ego transforming him into the superhuman Red Dragon. He tears up his dashboard, kills the coworker, and finds Reba inside. "Francis is gone," he tells her. "Francis is gone forever."

The psychological paths of Graham and Dollarhyde finally converge. Graham tells Crawford how he understands the Tooth Fairy. "He dreams about being wanted and desired. So he changes people into beings who will want and desire him…Killing and arranging the people to imitate it…You put it together, you get, if our boy imitates being wanted and desired enough times, he believes he will become one who is wanted and desired and accepted. It will all come true." He then deconstructs the killer, further playing into the sympathetic richness with how Mann and Noonan treat the character of Dollarhyde (and being much more effective than the schlocky flashbacks in Red Dragon). "This started from an abused kid. A battered infant. There's something terrible about it," Graham says, feeling deeply. "Are you sympathizing with this guy, Will?" Crawford asks offscreen. Mann keeps the camera on Graham's face. "Absolutely," he answers. "My heart bleeds for him as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks." He then voices a key problem as we understand the sympathetic psycho killer in movies like M, Psycho, Peeping Tom, Repulsion, and Taxi Driver – the uneasy line of sympathy and judgment in acknowledging that the killer's villainy does not exist in a vacuum. "Do you think that's a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?" Very often in movies, it does make us uncomfortable and we demand our murderers to be flatter. Noonan's performance as Dollarhyde reveals a very human and pitiable creature, who was created by someone's mishandling, just as Mark Lewis was.

It's in contemplating the filmed images of the two dead families that Graham has his epiphany that unlocks the case. "Everything with you is seeing, isn't it? Your primary sensory intake that makes your dream live is seeing. Reflections, mirrors, images." He jumps. "You've seen these films! Haven't you, my man?" Graham discovers that the home movies of both families, who lived in separate states, were developed in a photo lab outside of St. Louis. The Tooth Fairy saw these films, became enthralled with the families he was looking at, and desired to be a part of them – something that could only be realized in his murderous act.

Graham and company zero in on Dollarhyde and surround his house, moments before Reba was going to be slain as the latest full moon victim. Graham himself smashes through the reflective windows, as if Dollarhyde's own mirror was lashing out at him. Scored to Iron Butterfly, this climax is a masterpiece of film form regarding its use of film speeds, camera angles, and discontinuous offbeat cuts. The linear logic of the moment has lost its command of film time, and the "movie" as a technical and aesthetic object spirals out of any control. It ends when Graham puts a full cartridge of "one-stop" slugs into Dollarhyde (indicating a certain superhuman quality to Dollarhyde), killing his quarry and saving Reba. The sequence ends at dawn with a moment meant to connect with Dollarhyde's self refutation ("Francis is gone"), as Graham hugs Reba, who asks his name. "I'm Graham. I'm Will Graham." His identity, it is implied, is intact though is as wounded as his scarred face. What's also implied in Manhunter, like in all Mann films, is the cost of a man's work, and how the need to simulate and lose one's self is mandatory for "freedom" (freedom being a paycheck or a bank loot). After the climax, Graham is probably psychologically paralyzed by this new relapse, staring at the water off a dock. Crawford, wounded in the leg by Dollarhyde during the raid, limps into the frame, probably with another case to solve. The Tooth Fairy may be dead, just as Hannibal Lecktor was apprehended the last time he was here. But there surely remain more murders without explanation and killers to find. The system that exploits Graham's sympathy will never be finished with him.

Though Manhunter was a failure upon its initial release, it lingers for me as the best film of its kind. Given its pastels and 1980s new wave pop, some contemporary viewers may see it as little more than an overlong Miami Vice episode. Perhaps there is some truth to that, given Michael Mann's aesthetic handling of the material. But its style, while overpowering, is not shallow and works in perfect harmony with its content. It is then the very best Miami Vice episode. There is also, regardless of its new wave palette and painterly Edward Hopper-esque compositions, a film firmly grounded in Michael Mann's meticulous research and passion for the material. For while Brett Ratner's Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are straight adaptations of good yarns (one far superior to the other), they lack Manhunter's sense of anthropological integrity. Many of Mann's closest friends are individuals on both sides of the law (for example, Dennis Farina was a Chicago Special Crime Unit detective before acting as a hobby). While the psychotics of Taxi Driver and Psycho, though perhaps having some fact-based influence, are essentially second-hand stories, Mann took much of his influence from hands-on knowledge. In the 1970s while doing penal research for a variety of different screenplays (such as The Jericho Mile and the excellent thought little seen Straight Time), Mann began a correspondence with Dennis Wayne Wallace, a serial killer. When Manhunter came around, Mann did not base Dollarhyde on the character in Harris' book, but rather on Wallace, even to the extent that "In A Gadda Da Vida" was selected as the song to be played during the climax because it was the "love song" for Wallace and his imagined surfer queen girlfriend. In Harris' book, Mann found a narrative path ripe for planting seeds that he had been fascinated with for nearly a decade.

The influence of Manhunter reaches out into the present. Seven adopts Mann's method of having the murders committed offscreen, leaving much to our own imagination and thereby making the killer seem almost supernatural at times. Most glaringly is its influence found in Christopher Nolan, whose Insomnia takes several cues from Manhunter, and then even more unexpectedly, The Dark Knight. In Heath Ledger's Joker, Nolan made the wise gamble of separating the character from comic book norms and instead linked him to the Panoptical serial killer with an inexplicable motive, and then in essence bridging the villain's neurosis to that of the man pursuing him. Initially, the Joker (with no stable identity, as his face is a replication of the mask he wears over it: he is masks all the way down, with one origin story contradicting another) is pursued by Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) by logical deduction. The butler Alfred (Michael Caine) insinuates that Wayne think about it more deeply, giving an anecdote of his experiences in Burma. There was a raider stealing precious stones who no one could find. The logical investigative method would be to see who had been trading the stones, equivalent to the Atlanta detective in Manhunter discussing how he checks fences in robbery cases. This method, however, amounted to little. One day, Alfred's peers discovered a child playing with one of the stones, a gigantic ruby. The insight was that the raider was stealing for sport with an undetectable, illogical motive. "Some men just want to watch the world burn," Alfred posits about the Joker, linking the character to a psychotic lineage of film killers. This gives The Dark Knight a potent strength as a suspense picture. Like Lecktor and Dollarhyde, the Joker is more of a force than a man. He is the skewered face of detached sanity pulled from an even-focused retina. This gives him an edge missing from prior incarnations by Jack Nicholson or Cesare Romero; The Dark Knight's Joker is more than a summer movie villain. He is genuinely frightening. Much more than a comic book movie, The Dark Knight is an investigative psycho-killer crime story about human enigmas.

I've been mentioning the supernatural fringe element to these characters. Like nightmare specters, you cannot run away from Dollarhyde, Lecktor, the Joker, Norman Bates, etc. They are more than human. They run the Panopticon and are several steps ahead of you. The supernatural quality links the genre to a kind of moral element when we think about their victims. In classic horror scenario fashion, the psycho killer, representative of human enigmas, catch up with our apathy and punishes us like Old Testament angels. What is Travis Bickle in his own mind if not the wrath of God casting final judgment on "the filth" living in a "hell"? Janet Leigh's transgressions are dutifully punished by Norman Bates in Psycho. Much of this has to do with a kind of active repression and taboo boundaries, rooted in envy for a world from which these killers are kept apart. In Psycho we hear the simulated chastisements of Mrs. Bates, related to how Norman guiltily perceives the highly sexual Janet Leigh. When Mark Lewis sees sexualized women, he gazes at them – and if he can, he kills them. Travis Bickle's problem relates to a maladjusted sexuality. He sees "normal people," such as Cybil Shepherd's Betsy, and is hopeless. His wrath is directed at the "normal" people (Palantine, whose slogan is "We Are The People" – or rather, We Are The People, indicating exclusivity), or the people who exploit sexuality (Iris' pimps). It's even a little significant to me that we see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a horror movie about a family of outcasts killing an in-group of mostly sexually normal individuals, as a movie playing in the background while Travis drives. He can only relate to others by exertion of his gun. There is a very bittersweet moment in Taxi Driver (maybe the only one), where lonely Travis watches couples dance on his television to Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky," the camera slowly tracking around his head, a revolver in his hand. He's locked in his blank gaze at televised images of affection. It's too late for him to be like "everyone else." The problems of Francis Dollarhyde and Buffalo Bill are likewise sexual problems that have gotten out of hand. These men needed to be held some time ago, to say the very least.

Another De Niro / Scorsese film that bears discussion of this "Avenging God" subject is Cape Fear (1991), a remake that Scorsese did not much want to make but nevertheless succeeded with in crafting a very personalized reflection on a madman, Max Cady (De Niro), judging the apathetic, bourgeois family values of Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). Cape Fear might be Scorsese's most conventional narrative in recent memory, with the basic psycho killer trappings pushed to an extreme limit of disturbing violence and sexuality. But I believe Max Cady is a more complicated creation than we would typically give credit. For one thing, De Niro's Cady is less fundamentally rooted in Robert Mitchum's great Cady from the original, and rather Mitchum's performance as the stalking widow-making preacher in The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum's character in that film not only shares Cady's taste for sanctimoniousness, but also his superhuman determination. One of the children being chased by the preacher notes after seeing him ride in hot pursuit, "Doesn't he ever sleep?" No, he probably does not. Likewise, his murderousness is born from sexual anxiety. He converses with God, harshly speaking about the go-go dancer he watches. The fuel for his rage and hate is his repressed desire.

Max Cady is also a sexual criminal, but like Hannibal Lector he is at peace with his compulsions, instead ready to point out the hypocrisies of the Sam Bowdens of the world. Finishing his 14-year prison sentence, during which he disciplined his brain by knowing the law, religion, and philosophy, Cady is determined to haunt Bowden, his defending lawyer who threw away important evidence that would have worked in Cady's favor. Bowden transgressed his duties as a lawyer because he believed he was doing the right thing: he passed judgment on Cady, a rapist, and ditched a report that indicated that Cady's teenage victim was promiscuous. Bowden's profession affords him a good house that looks stable, but he has had marital problems with Leigh (Jessica Lange) and cannot relate to his rebellious daughter Danni (Juliette Lewis). It's indicated that he has had affairs in the past, and is on the verge of possibly having another with a clerk (Ileanna Douglas).

Cady then becomes more than a basic vengeance seeker. He is, honestly, a messenger from God sent to judge Bowden and, ironically, save him – leaving some corpses along the way. Cady is almost completely invulnerable, defending himself against hired thugs and restraining orders. He knows the system inside out, and knows that he can rape and maim Ileanna Douglas' character without retribution, because she would never put herself in the position to testify. But Cady lives authentically – devil or no. He tells Bowden in a crowded restaurant, "You notice these young people? They don't look very happy. They're committed to their professions and their ambitions, but they're not committed to each other." He quotes Nietzsche and the mystic Silesius, equating himself with God. Like Nolan's Joker will later, he transgresses all spatial boundaries, even assuming a role in drag. A hired dick (Joe Don Baker) works to make the Bowden vacation house a foolproof place invulnerable to intruders by attaching a special string to a teddy bear. If the bear moves, "I'd know if the Holy Ghost was sneaking in," a line of dialogue instantly associating Cady with something transcendent. And – in spite of whatever logical means Cady does penetrate the house – he gets in and so is abstractly related to the Holy Ghost. The flight of the Bowdens is even described by Sam as "force majeure": an unforeseeable act of God. Cady catches and terrorizes the Bowdens on their houseboat, preparing to rape both Leigh and daughter Danni after getting Sam Bowden's full confession. The suspense climax then becomes a great cleansing, and though the narrative goes through an expected trajectory with Cady's final plans of rape being foiled after Sam has handcuffed him to the sinking boat, it does not mean that Max Cady is not a messenger of God (Scorsese does allude to the Book of Job, in which God comes across as a sadistic bastard). He sings hymns and speaks in tongues while being pulled into the water, his final gaze at Bowden a reminder of grave spiritual realities the apathetic normal man takes for granted. Sam looks at his hands, which bear Christ's stigmata. He washes them and he is cleaned. In Scorsese's Catholic manner, his protagonist has been redeemed through blood, made aware and conscious where once he was ignorant: was blind, but now sees. Cady's function is ultimately an unexpectedly spiritual one. He is Last Temptation's Christ come with a sword. The psychopath may be representative of the unfathomable depths of the human mystery, and so may have a function beyond Good and Evil in how he relates to the Sane and Prosperous among us. He preaches to us.


Max Cady reminds Sam Bowden of what he has. I used the word Envy before in describing the sexual anxieties and maladjustments of these lonely characters with poor coping mechanisms. They retort to the objects of their envy with wrathful blood, judging them self righteously. There is at bottom a meaning in their horrific actions. That's an allure to psycho killers, because they demand interpretation and play into a human need to understand and make meaning. We want answers, and psycho killers have the secrets. Do we really want the truth? A great psycho movie is George Sluizer's The Vanishing (1988), a Dutch film (poorly remade for Hollywood by Sluizer in 1993) where a man, Rex, desires to know the whereabouts of his missing girlfriend Saskia. A seemingly normal, middle-class Chemistry teacher claims to know what happened, and he eventually reveals the truth to Rex in offering to do to him exactly what he did to Saskia. The truth is too irresistible, and Rex finds out in the film's final moments, which remains one of the most frightening revelations I've ever seen in a movie. The psychotic here was bent on testing himself; he had lost his civilized ability to repress certain compulsions: standing over a ledge, he asked himself if he could willingly plummet and break his arm. He does it. Can he then kidnap a person? And then go further? So be it. The psychotic is the abyss that looks back into us as we stare into it.

The question of meaning and certainty, laid out on the rocky terrain of human madness, pertains to the final two films I want to discuss. David Fincher's Seven revealed that he was a major filmmaking force in 1995; 12 years later he made good on his promise with his masterpiece, Zodiac. Both are about serial killers who seem to be communicating their hidden neurosis through heinous acts of murder. But the latter film, larger ignored on its initial release in March of 2007 (it appeared on several of the decade's Best Of lists three years later), is a kind of reaction to the older, more successful one. While in Seven the fear is of the presence of meaning, in Zodiac the threat is uncertainty and unmeaning. The murders in Seven are theatrical atrocity exhibitions, carefully staged and executed offscreen. They are art. We see the murders in Zodiac, and they're messy, quick, and lack finesse. While John Doe's correspondence must be sought out by the detectives in Seven, the Zodiac killer demands his words be published by the press. Both films are filmed in beautiful widescreen (Darius Khonji shot Seven, and Harris Savides shot Zodiac on HD video), but whereas the former has patterns of symmetry in its compositions, Zodiac's set-ups are an endless array of chaos. Finally, both ultimate resonances are hardly consoling: Seven's meaning and Zodiac's uncertainty are equally unnerving resolutions.

Set in an unnamed metropolis plagued with urban decay, Seven begins by looking at retiring Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) at a crime scene, upsetting his fellow investigators with his questions. He says, "Look at all the passion sprayed on that wall," in reference to the blood splatter caused by a wife's double-barrel murder of her husband. Corporeal substance conveys meaning and we are foolish to behave as if incidents exist independently of each other. Somerset wants to know if the children saw the murder. "Who cares?" another detective says with irritation. "They're dead. Our job is done." Back at home, we notice how Somerset neatly arranges everything. His existence is based on order, perhaps the strongest psychological aide to cope with the urban squalor we hear outside of his apartment. He is devoted to observing the consonance of a given environment and putting the puzzle together as best he can. He is reconciled to nihilism, but necessarily constructs on top of its rubble for fear of being swallowed by it.

His new partner is David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young hot shot whose chief characteristic is his rough disorganization. He tightens an old tie with basketballs on it, knotted long before, splashes water through his disheveled hair in his apartment, still fresh for him and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is also unlike Somerset in how he's far from being at peace with the nihilism outside his window. Against his better judgment, he's excited to be living here. He believes he can make a difference and that life is easily organized by categorization (guilt, innocence, sanity, insanity). Life is simple for him, and he just wants to do a good job and work at starting a stable family in the meantime – a notion Somerset long ago abandoned.

They arrive at a crime scene involving an obese man who has been bound by wire and force-fed until he burst. Mills talks throughout the scene, while Somerset's quiet curiosity seeks clues. In this scenario, Fincher exudes contempt for Hollywood narrative, represented by Mills. Seven is, on first appearance, a standard Hollywood cop-buddy serial killer movie, which is exactly the kind of movie David Mills would want to see with his wife on a Friday night after watching a sports game. He is emblematic of the type of audience member Fincher would scoff at. He speaks hackneyed lines like, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide," the stuff of so many buddy cop movies. Somerset looks annoyed.

Somerset sees the fat man's murder as a piece in a larger picture. "If you want somebody dead, you shoot them. You don't do this. Unless the act itself has meaning." The utterance leads his captain (Lee Ermey) to insist, "Don't get that big brain working on this," something that any literary or film critic has to deal with from the "I just want to be entertained" crowd repeatedly. Somerset is lured into the case and puts the meaning together. The first murder was "Gluttony," and a second involving a rich lawyer is "Greed." Fincher is basically making a case for active interpretation in film viewing, as opposed to passive. Surely David Mills, sitting in the dead lawyer's office and framed between two works of abstract modern art, would be the first to look at avant-garde work and say, "Just because you take a piece of shit and call it art doesn't make it not a piece of shit." The world is easier to take with such a philosophy, which is why Mills is able to adhere to a simple philosophy of good and evil. Any critic can understand the allure meaning and interpretation has for Somerset, while any average joe can understand Mills exploding while reading Dante: "Fucking Dante! Fucking poetry-writing faggot!" These are hateful words, but Mills is more of our everyman in this adventure than the extraordinary Somerset, who lives for research. Actually, this is why I believe Brad Pitt's performance as Mills is remarkable. It is easy to dismiss him because Mills seems like such an incorrigible, shallow flake. This is precisely the point, and Pitt accomplishes the task Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker set up for him superbly.

Somerset puts the pieces together by alluding to Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Chaucer's "Parson's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales. He tirelessly pages through books and makes copies of these antique texts in a library, while Mills tries to interpret the forensic photographs, watching basketball and eating Chinese food at the same time. The documented descriptions of the murders dissolve into unsavory corporeal passages in Dante involving ripped flesh, accompanied by grotesque drawings. In a sense, Mills is a precursor to the live-fast-and-shallow characters who estrange themselves from history in latter Fincher films, like Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. The path to wisdom involves immersion in history, such as we see with Somerset and Robert Graysmith in Zodiac (who is unique to everyone else in his quest to reveal the Zodiac by virtue of how he goes to the library). The murderer in Seven is "preaching" to his audience. Mills would rather think that "he's a fucking nutjob," and leave it at that. That's what most good citizens reduce things in everyday life. "Guy's fucking us is what he's doing," Mills says in frustration, a commentary one hears too often from people that have accidentally sat through a David Lynch film. They are, like Mills, incorrect. "It's dismissive to call him a lunatic," Somerset says. "Come on, he's insane! Look! Right now he's probably dancing around in his grandma's panties, yeah, rubbing himself in peanut butter," is Pitt's response, uttered in such a desperation that it suggests the character's own vulnerabilities when faced with a labyrinth of meaning. "Just because the fucker's got a library card doesn't make him Yoda!"

Indeed, there's something to Fincher's association of Mills to the stable, "normal," heteronormative guy with a beautiful wife and a couple of dogs he loves to wrestle with, reading Cliff's Notes instead of books, watching basketball instead of researching, exerting his will instead of listening to his wife or partner. He's a very American guy, and so Fincher understands that he is attractive to most audiences who will watch his film (this was just as Pitt was reaching the summit of his handsome heart-throb stardom, a year after Interview With the Vampire and Legends of the Fall). We can also note, maybe humorously against our own good consciences, his homophobia (Dante's a "poetry writing faggot" and Mills doesn't want to sit next to Somerset in a trashy restaurant for fear of being identified as being too cozy with another man). Mills is, despite how a progressive viewer will interpret his flaws, everything that a social outcast male wants to be. He's the definitive object of Envy for the Underground Man, or the serial killer John Doe who has a very Underground Man sensibility laced with vitriolic Christian frenzy. John Doe writes in his diary, "What sick ridiculous puppets we are. What fun we have dancing, fucking, not having a care in the world, not knowing that we are nothing. We are not what was intended." He could indeed be thinking of Mills.

The other piece of the puzzle that associates Mills to the Envy of John Doe relates to his "pretty wife," Tracy, photographed and played for Fincher by Paltrow as an immaculate and untouchable object of beauty and tenderness. Seven was conceived by Andrew Kevin Walker in the early part of the 1990s, the period of time after the Christian Coalition had implacably set itself within the Republican Party and had made Abortion the single issue on which a large percentage of the believing population cast a vote. For a progressive liberal, abortion may be about choice and a woman's reproductive right. I am aware that this is a loaded and ill-advised statement, but I believe that for a religious fundamentalist (having lived and worshipped among them), abortion – more than being related to babies – is about sex and sexual freedom. It implies sexual anarchy – of which the fundamentalist (much like the psycho killers discussed here) is denied experience. John Doe (played with delicate smarm by Kevin Spacey) matches his psycho peers by having no identity or firmly traceable history, but also in having deep undercurrents of envy for the more socially adept people – "dancing, fucking like they don't have a care in the world" – around him. Tracy's confession of pregnancy to Somerset, something of which Mills is unaware, opens an abortion discussion in Seven, which for me necessarily relates to the drive of John Doe. The Child is not a Child but a Choice, an attitude that corresponds to the apathy of the film's secular wasteland. Treated as such, Tracy is aptly judged by the Chosen One of God, John Doe.

This is an uncomfortable notion in Seven. For though its basic perspective of is that of the paranoid liberal in fear of right wing fundamentalist fury, there is an uneasy speculation regarding the existence of Order, and so of a judging God. When Somerset describes to his captain a terrible incident reported by the papers, involving a man who was mugged and had both of his eyes stabbed out, the captain gives a wearied look and says, "It's the way it's always been." What is unspoken during this moment is how the captain is trying to convince himself that Armageddon, the End Time or Apocalypse, is not happening. It is, in our apathetic and liberal terrain of "dancing and fucking," a frightening prospect that the God of the Book of Revelation exists, and it was certainly a living concept in the early 1990s (several television preachers insinuated that whomever was elected in 1992 would be the last president before the antichrist) – though today the notion has again gained a lot of steam. There is a horror mood to Seven as if what is happening in the story is related to the devil – or if not the devil, the same God described by Chaucer's Parson, or who has allowed the punishments of Hell to exist, as described by Dante and Milton. Before Mills and Somerset drive John Doe to the film's desolate, climactic location, the older detective tells Mills, "If John Doe's head splits open and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it." The only way Fincher's atmosphere can be satisfied is if John Doe is indeed the Devil – or God.

He isn't, but the film's famous conclusion, where John Doe's Envy and Mills' Wrath are played out to the killer's perfected design, remains as unnerving as any horror ending. The immaculate wife was beheaded off screen, her baby inside of her. John Doe describes the murder vaguely, which is more than enough for us to be pushed over the edge. Our imaginations run wild about this murder, the headless corpse left behind, and even the unmentioned fates of Mills' beloved dogs. Up to this point, all of John Doe's victims have been somewhat extraordinary: a morbidly fat man, a rich lawyer, a drug-addicted pedophile, a glamorous model, and a prostitute, to say nothing of John Doe himself, the envious serial killer. But Mills is us, and Fincher I believe wants us to think about that. John Doe tells Mills, "I wish I could have lived like you," adding, "I tried to taste the life of a simple man. Because I envy your normal life, it seems that envy is my sin."

We construct domestic meaning in our everyday lives while refusing to reconcile it with the undesirable elements we suppress from our view. Mills refuses to acknowledge the nihilism and chaos around him. He has a proud, willful ignorance he believes he can overcome, something Somerset sees as naivete. Somerset, who lives an examined life (he is, after all, named after W. Somerset Maugham, novelist of Of Human Bondage), can endure in a meaningless world. Mills is like so many of us, who need to believe in a God or an ideal that handles the chaos for them. When that chaos breaks all systems of meaning, such people lose their footing and cannot live any more. The uneasy contradiction of living amidst chaos is expressed in Somerset's last line: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." This is, to point out the David Bowie song playing over the end credits, indeed a heart's filthy lesson.


Somerset loves detection, interpretation, creating order and making meaning, but he understands how discovering clues only leads to more unanswered questions, another trait linking him to the literary critic who understands that a work's richness has much to do with how it cannot be fully excavated and understood. Fincher's Zodiac is a great film about our desire for certainty, and how we can ultimately never have it. It is a rare marvel of a movie experience, kaleidoscopic in its sweep of infinite characters and settings over a nearly 20 year span, with no expense spared in how it shows institutions of law enforcement and media journalism converging and stepping over each other with miscommunication. In that sense, Zodiac is also a fine companion piece to The Social Network, Fincher's other masterwork, which is about the speed of communication in the Information Age; Zodiac's opening credits, set in 1969, has a camera following a mail cart through the San Francisco Chronicle's building, the ensuing narrative showcasing how word fails to spread or be comprehended – and finally cannot be comprehended. The movie stands alongside Manhunter as being the best of investigative serial killer movies, but unlike many of its peers we can only be sure on a scale of 8 out of 10 that we have met the actual Zodiac during the film's 160 minute running time.

Zodiac's prologue is the first murder, or at least the first murder officially attributed to the Zodiac, taking place on July 4th, 1969. Scored perfectly to Donovan's haunting "Hurdy Gurdy Man," we see a kind of forbidden date in progress as a young man goes out with a beautiful married, albeit separated, woman. As she drives and looks into her rearview mirror, she seems nervous, like she realizes that she is being followed. He asks her about it, but she insists that they park and talk. A dark car looms behind them. "Let's go," the young man demands, but she doesn't move. There's an almost nightmare-like frustration to her inertness and indecision as she looks at the mysterious vehicle. It drives off and they are relieved, but tires then screech in the distance. The car is turning around and coming back. The Donovan music lifts its volume as a large man exits the car. He shoots both young lovers several times. The woman is killed almost instantly, while the young man is in critical condition. The police are alerted by the Zodiac's own phone call, which ends with an ominous "Good Bye."

The press prepares to handle the Zodiac case by attempting to interpret his coded messages. Everything we are seeing implies that this killer is working with a purposeful modus operandi and plan laden with deep meaning. He is, after all, named after an astrological concept. The main writer on the topic is the eccentric and alcoholic Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), but it is cartoonist and puzzle-addict Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllanhall) who takes the most passionate interest in the Zodiac's identity – if not because of his addiction to puzzles, decoding, and research, then because the anonymity of the Zodiac makes him a genuine threat to anybody, including Graysmith's child. More murders happen: another young couple, but this time in the middle of the day; and then a taxi driver at a quiet city intersection. The Zodiac sends proofs that all three murders were his doing and the cops, led by Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), are pressured to find solutions.

There is a problem, though. These killings don't match, or at least as perfectly as they should. The first two killings are linked in how the victims are young romantic couples, in both cases the man surviving while the woman dies. But one pair is attacked at night with a gun, the other in daylight with a knife. The third victim is a taxi driver, by gunfire, yet with no connection otherwise to the previous murders. Fincher shows a woman and her baby who come close to being the fourth incident, though she is able to escape. The Zodiac demands that the local television station have an on-air call-in broadcast, so that he can communicate with the famously eccentric lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox). They do have a caller who claims to be the Zodiac, but an eyewitness victim claims the voice does not match. It's further insinuated that the mother who saved herself and her child, while having a close call, was not terrorized by the same man who was the authentic Zodiac. The whole thematic resonance of this Coded Puzzle created by a killer threatens to completely fall apart.

The police get a break when information from multiple witnesses immediately makes an outcast loner and convicted pedophile, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a suspect. The pieces all seem to fit; in addition to Allen's past history, the witnesses' consistent testimonies, and Allen's terrifyingly antisocial behavior (a mass of porn and caged squirrels are found in his trailer), there is the fact that he is ambidextrous. There's also Allen's knowledge of the film The Most Dangerous Game, to which the Zodiac refers in one of his coded messages. Most damning is the watch that he wears: a "Zodiac" with the same cross-hairs bull's-eye icon seen on the Zodiac's letters. We look at Allen being interrogated, and like Toschi, Armstrong, and Police Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas), we are convinced that this is the guy.

Except that the forensic evidence indicates that he didn't do it. A handwriting expert claims that the writing from neither of Allen's hands could match what's seen in the Zodiac letters. Toschi has to release him and is back at square one. Time passes, and while the city grows into the future, the men who were on the cusp of finding out the meaning of the Zodiac are like pale versions of their younger selves. Toschi feels mocked while watching a special screening of Dirty Harry¸ a film inspired by the Zodiac case (the killer is named "Scorpio," and targets "little darlings" on school buses) where the San Francisco vigilante lawman (Clint Eastwood) leaps over the intricacies of due process in order to get his man. Armstrong quits his post as detective, opting for clerical police work instead. Avery loses himself to alcohol. Only Graysmith remains tenacious, even using his kids as his research staff. His well documented curiosity leads to disturbing phone calls from the (possible) Zodiac, who has not been up to much of anything in recent years. Avery chides him. The Zodiac, unlike John Doe in Seven, is not a man undergoing a transcendent process of "becoming." If he was Arthur Leigh Allen, his whole conceit was named after a commercial brand watch. "He's in it for the press," Avery says. The Zodiac was a celebrity serial murderer looking for media attention. He's an opportunist.

Why do we need to identify the Zodiac? After all, more people are killed in any given day than the Zodiac killed during his whole reign of terror. He claims that he's killed 13 people, but the evidence implies huge discrepancies, and any investigator could prove that some of the named victims were killed by different people. But for some reason, the investigators in Zodiac are torn apart by their obsession to know. This man set up puzzles of meaning, and so has made us hungry for it. When Avery points out to Graysmith that some of the Zodiac's alleged victims possibly did not even exist, he observes, "Bobby, you look disappointed." People did not die, and yet Graysmith is somber. Meaning is more important. When his wife (Chloe Sevingy) demands to know when his quest to find the Zodiac will be finished, Graysmith struggles for an answer, saying, "I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye. And I need to know that it's him."

But there is never any certainty, whether in knowing the killer's identity or of being certain that we are safe from him as he observes all through his Panoptical lens and can strike us at our most relaxed moment. In the movie, several characters that we presume to know are not the Zodiac share his abstract lethality because we still are not sure: Charles Fleischer is magnificent as a former film exhibitor and collector whose handwriting, Graysmith discovers at the most inconvenient moment (when he's alone with him at the Fleischer character's creaky old house), matches that of the Zodiac's. The man who threatens the mother and even the voice of the individual who calls Belli are no less frightening. Fincher toys with his audience, even casting three different actors as the barely seen Zodiac – not including the prime suspect, Allen.

Graysmith puts his puzzle together the best he can. He interviews an incarcerated woman who knew the first Zodiac victim, and so would possibly hold the concrete evidence needed to convict Graysmith's key suspect, Rick Marshall. The woman repeatedly, and adamantly, says that it was not Rick Marshall. Graysmith becomes apoplectic. His ego demands that she just say it. "Rick Marshall! It was Rick Marshall! Just say it!" He gets up to leave. "Leigh," she then says, remembering the individual Graysmith wanted her to point out. "His name was Leigh."

The first Zodiac victim knew, and was very weary of, Arthur Leigh Allen, one point of key evidence that David Toschi never discovered. Graysmith finds Arthur Leigh Allen, who now works at a hardware store, and finally rests his eyes on him. Allen looks back, at first confused, and then with malevolence. He is the Zodiac, and we see his eyes communicate the satanic truth to Graysmith.

Or at least we are pretty sure it's the truth. Zodiac ends with the young man who survived the opening Zodiac attack on July 4th, 1969. He is now a scraggly older man who has apparently not adjusted well to life following the incident. An FBI man (James Le Gros) shows him a row of photographs featuring Zodiac suspects and asks if any of the men was the perpetrator. "Him," the victim says, pointing at Arthur Leigh Allen. "I'm pretty sure." The FBI agent asks him of his certainty on a 1 to 10 scale. "At least an 8. The last time I saw this face was on July 4th, 1969." "Hurdy Gurdy Man"'s hum resumes on the soundtrack and a chill slides down our backs.

Arthur Leigh Allen, Zodiac concludes, was the killer in that first sequence, and was probably the celebrity known as the Zodiac Killer. But we are not granted absolute certainty. Murkiness slips in. We can only be sure on a 1 to 10 scale that he's a definite 8. The postscript informs us how his DNA did not match archived evidence. But we then learn that when Allen died, Graysmith stopped receiving mysterious phone calls. Maybe Zodiac's greatness as a serial killer movie about a psychopath is owed to how its entire sense of unfathomable uncertainty perfectly melds with the terrifying mysteries of a human mind that we can never completely control and fully know. Walking around our neighborhoods after viewing it, we do not feel illuminated or edified. The candle's illumination only leads to more perverse shadows and darker cavernous spaces. As human beings we need to know, but also being human beings, we must realize that we cannot know and all that we have are facts flavored with faith.


Murkiness is the answer at the end of so many of these adventures. A psychiatrist can try to spell it out, as we have at the conclusions of Psycho or Dressed to Kill, but any soft enlightenment or closure is offset by our being flung back into the hazy darkness of confusion. Taxi Driver ends as it began, and though Travis is an ironic working class hero, the repetitions of those first images imply that he will again go down the same track of delusion and murder, and probably not be so fortunate the next time. Serial killer movies very often offer us something to which we're resistant as filmgoers: ambiguity. Don't we go to the theater for an escape from the chaos and uncertainty of our daily lives, thriving in the delusion for nearly two hours before being spat back out into the numbing chaos of strangers and separateness? Luckily, most of us cope with the world of "real, normal people," of which we are all presumably a part anyway, fairly well. The warning remains that we never can know other people any more than we can fully know ourselves.

Many films have been looked over. I should have loved to talk about Brian De Palma's psychopaths, in Sisters, Dressed to Kill, or two of my favorites as played deliciously by John Lithgow in the treasured Blow Out and the underrated Raising Cain. There are other works by Hitchcock, Polanski, Lynch, Nolan, etc, or the random mainstream pop exercise, like Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female. I would have also enjoyed thinking more deeply about William Friedkin's undervalued and terribly misunderstood Cruising, a flawed film no doubt, but also effectively unnerving and luxuriating in its uncertainties as an up and coming cop (Al Pacino) searches for a serial killer through New York's gay leather scene. Friedkin is stubbornly persistent in refusing any closure or cinched answers, a quality that makes Cruising more eerie with time.

We love delusions, which is why we love movies. Delusions offer a level of certainty, whether it is an element of psychosis, religious fundamentalism, or political fanaticism. The appeal of the psycho killer, God's lonely man armed to the hilt with his fair share of delusions, is the thrill of fear coupled with an expose of our own delusions and comforts taken for granted. Travis Bickle is talking to us when he's asking, "You talkin' to me?" just as he is talking to his imagined enemies, and just as he is talking to himself. Jared Loughner, the latest true-life incarnation of the Travis Bickle character, makes Schrader and Scorsese's creation more frightening. In those YouTube videos, as his lonely voice vents across his community college campus, he is also talking to us, to his enemies, and to himself. We justly hate him and despise his philosophy, the same way we despise the Columbine killers. Such individuals and their heinous acts have resulted in movies like Taxi Driver being blamed as influences. But I don't think it's an influence. That trivializes the true matter of what is going on with such people, so that they can remain monsters and the movies can remain mere entertainments, and so we can remain comfortable with our inherited certainties. We would do better to see films like Taxi Driver as a mirror to that dark, lonely abyss that we normally only have to confront in dreams, and which those few other unfortunate beings have been swallowed by while awake, never to return.

No comments:

Post a Comment