As if the Soviet Union didn’t have enough problems by the 1980s, the tottering Evil Empire found itself facing one of its most vexing crises in ’82: an elusive serial killer. The eight-year search for the monster, despite an absence of support or even acknowledgement from the government, forms the basis for the always compelling, fact-based “Citizen X.” Some gaps in the teleplay are more than balanced by top-notch acting and skillful direction, resulting in one of HBO’s crown jewel productions.
Credit goes largely to Stephen Rea, who carries “Citizen X” as the beleaguered but dogged Viktor Burakov. He’s a forensics expert in rural Rostov-on-Don who’s forced to become a detective when bodies start turning up in the woods on the outskirts of town.
Viewers share in his bewilderment as the body count — comprising mostly young boys and girls — starts to mount, and in his frustration when government officials hamper his efforts.
“There are no serial killers in the Soviet state,” says local party boss Bondarchuk (Joss Ackland, who so personifies the villainous Soviet one expects him to hibernate in the winter). “It’s a decadent Western phenomenon.”
About the only support Burakov gets, aside from his little-seen wife (Imelda Staunton), is from Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland), who excels at the political and bureaucratic maneuvering that bewilders the doctor. Fetisov’s confidence leads him to elevate Burakov to head of the new “Killer Dept.”
That office consists of little more than a few investigators and Burakov’s keen intuition. He longs for the sophisticated equipment and hard-won expertise that his American counterparts have, but is consistently rebuffed.
While Burakov soldiers on, we see the killer, Chikatilo (Jeffrey DeMunn), ply his deadly trade. Incongruously, he’s the married father of several children, henpecked at home and demeaned at his menial job. At moments of frustration he descends on the stations for the rural railroad that crisscrosses the outlands of Russia, where he preys on lonely children and outcasts.
Writer-director Chris Gerolmo skillfully portrays Chikatilo’s grisly acts in a way that conveys the horror and the brutality — he stabbed his victims dozens of times, sometimes cut off body parts and then masturbated on the corpse — without being exploitive or overly bloody.
When Burakov and Fetisov come up empty-handed after a couple of years — although viewers know they are on the right track and were, indeed, close to breaking the case early on — Bondarchuk insists on a new strategy. He wants to round up doctors, sex offenders and, especially, known homosexuals, and he brings in an officious cop from Moscow (John Wood) to oversee the investigation.
As a result, it’s not until 1990 — by which time the Soviets have fallen, Fetisov has enlisted help from the FBI and Burakov has been able to fully implement the investigation he wanted — that Chikatilo is finally caught. It’s done with the help of a Russian psychiatrist — Max von Sydow at his most charming — who devises a psychological profile of the killer.
For all the compelling elements of the story, too much of the action in helmer Gerolmo’s teleplay is left to descriptions, rather than acting. So we hear from Fetisov and others what a great detective Burakov is, how counterparts in the U.S. have admired his work for years. Yet all we see is Rea’s stony, hangdog face seeming to droop ever more as each hunch comes up cold, each plea for help gets rejected.#This is no knock on the actor. Considering that his facial expression rarely changes and his speaking voice rarely rises above a murmur, Rea manages to put in a dramatic performance. Eschewing the hair-pulling , table-pounding exasperation typical of this kind of role, Rea makes a refreshingly low-key hero.
Sutherland, too, exercises restraint in his superior/sidekick role. DeMunn is at once creepy and mundane as the killer, so unobtrusive as to not attract notice, so seductive that he rounds up victims with ease. Other performers, many apparently native Hungarians, are fine.
Production designer Joseph Romvari gets the details just right, and director of photography Robert Fraisse creates a perfect mood for evil to be done.
Much of “Citizen X’s” success is precisely its willingness to confront evil — of the murderous and the bureaucratic kind. The film’s picture of humanity’s worst instincts, and unlikeliest heroes, makes for a work of uncommon quality.