Opportunities to root for the killers and those in touch with their sensibilities
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
What has Jim Thompson wrought?
One of the best writers in the crime genre published “The Killer Inside Me” in 1952, and the book became an underground classic. The protagonist, Lou Ford, was a small town Texas deputy sheriff with a slow and meandering way about him. Ford was the quintessential good old boy, but he had a secret — a deep, dark sickness, that flared up once when he was young and rears its ugly head again, years later, with startling results.
Ford was a killer, a stark raving sociopath with a hunger that couldn’t be satiated. The story teased filmmakers for decades. The bloody advent of the late 1960s and the raw grit of the early 1970s (The Wild Bunch, Bonnie & Clyde, Taxi Driver) presented appetizers that promised a meaty meal to come, but Ford never arrived on the plate; not until Michael Winterbottom seduced Casey Affleck to walk on the wild side again (after his dead-eyed turn in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford) in 2010 with The Killer Inside Me. Killers grab critical acclaim (and a lesser take) at the box office, but they thrive in our homes on the small screen.
It seems that contemporary audiences suffer from a similar disorder, a need to see and know this kind of killer. To not only understand what makes him tick, but to also sympathize, to root for him to appease the parasitic urge.
Showtime seized upon the work of writer Jeff Lindsay for its most-watched original series Dexter, which details the exploits of a serial killer, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) who also happens to be a member of a crime scene investigation unit in Miami. Dexter’s twist is that he uses his dark urge for good, targeting only other killers, the real criminals that his team seeks to bring to justice. Season five (which hit the streets on Blu-Ray and DVD August 16) finds Dexter trying to cope with the death of his wife as he wanders into the future as a single dad. Will he, or better yet, can he raise a baby alone and will his son be tainted by the same darkness? As a contrast, the season spotlights a woman (guest star Julia Stiles) seeking revenge on the men who abused her and her growing relationship with Dexter. At every turn, efforts are made to humanize Dexter, but the luridly absurd mix of crime drama/police procedural and mystery/horror counteracts them. It is all just a show and a bit of a sham.
Somehow though, the first season of the Criminal Minds spinoff, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, chillingly achieves the desired results. Introduced during season five of that series, this elite “red cell” Behavioral Analysis Unit headed by Special Agent Sam Cooper (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) jets off each week to assist local police in the apprehension of the most baffling killers. These profilers gather enough clues to “enter” the minds of their dangerous prey in order to prevent them from continuing their vicious sprees. The show, unlike the Law & Order franchise or the CSI family of police procedurals, doesn’t have a “straight from the headlines” feel, due to the fact that the real life work of FBI profilers is more classified, but that doesn’t mean that Suspect Behavior is any less disturbing. There are hints of character development when it comes to Cooper’s handpicked team of specialists, yet they, to a large extent, don’t matter. It is the cases themselves — the horrific stories of the killers, those that are easily explained away and the others, the ones where we are given a glimpse of pure ordinary evil — that haunt us long after the team ties up the loose ends.
We don’t root for these killers. These are the ones we fear, and rightly so.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.