Based on a true story, “Killer: A Journal of Murder” is a disturbing prison drama about the unlikely relationship between a self-proclaimed reprobate, who may have been America’s first serial killer, and a conscientious guard seeking the man’s redemption. Oliver Stone’s production, which features top-notch performances by James Woods, as the remorseless criminal, and Robert Sean Leonard, as the liberal guard, deserves to be seen on the bigscreen before moving on to TV, cable, video and other venues.
Inevitable comparisons will be made between this film and Tim Robbins’ current “Dead Man Walking,” as both are intriguing tales about the complex interaction — and friendship — between two individuals at opposite poles of the behavioral spectrum. Both films deal with capital punishment and center on the psyche of a criminal and his slow, torturous road to attaining personal truth and peace of mind. That said, there are enough differences to warrant viewing of both dramas, each of which is fascinating in its own right.
Set in 1929 in Leavenworth Prison, story introduces Henry Lesser (Leonard) at the beginning of his career as a guard with lofty dreams and hopes for prison reform. In jail, he meets Carl Panzram (Woods), a vengeful murderer with animalistic instincts who’s perceived as unreachable and irredeemable. It takes the highly moralistic Henry some time to realize that ruthlessness and corruption extend to the prison guards as well. Witnessing the casual brutality of his mates toward the prisoners, Henry finds his value system beginning to collapse, and he starts questioning the validity of the penitentiary system.
Carl represents everything Henry is not — his soul is filled with hate, his conscience seemingly empty. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Henry, an educated, liberal Jew, is fascinated with Carl because he’s never met anyone like him before. When Henry discovers that Carl longs to write his life story but has no access to pen or paper, he smuggles in the supplies in total defiance of the rules. He hopes the writing will help Carl exorcise his demons, though the convict continues to claim he’s beyond remorse.
True to form, “Killer,” like last year’s “Murder in the First,” contains obligatory sequences with stubborn inmates and cruel guards. One scene, however, in which Carl brutally bludgeons to death the most sadistic guard while his fellow prisoners watch indifferently, ups the ante considerably.
Carl claims it’s society that has made him the “animal” that he is, and therefore society should take responsibility and execute him. Henry refuses to believe him, and brings into prison noted psychoanalyst Menninger (John Bedford Lloyd), hoping the convict will be judged mentally unfit to stand trial. Carl, however, boldly refuses the insanity defense and the help of a court-appointed attorney. When a 1930 jury finds him guilty and decrees death by hanging, Carl welcomes his verdict, relishing his personal triumph over the system. It’s this point that distinguishes “Killer” from “Dead Man Walking,” in which death row bears a totally different meaning.
Film is based on a 1970 book co-authored by Thomas E. Gaddis, who scripted the prison classic “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and James O. Long. Writer-director Tim Metcalfe’s tightly constructed, fast-moving scenario is intelligent and knowing, but the actual case may be too complex for a 90-minute dramatization. Though helmer finds an original way to present episodes from Panzram’s shocking life, his movie doesn’t dig deep enough into the formation and workings of a troubled psyche, which should have been the dramatic core. Instead, Metcalfe conveniently settles for a less ambitious task, a relationship film between two opposites.
Ultimately, “Killer” is not as richly detailed or multilayered as “Dead Man Walking,” and the prosaic, earnest nature of some sequences has a TV-movie feel.
Still, the acting of the two leads is beyond reproach. Woods, who has excelled in playing wiry nihilists and assorted villains, is perfectly cast as the loathsome killer who welcomes his doom. His highly charged, intelligent presence complements an intense performance, which combines arrogance and bitter hostility. In his most mature work to date, Leonard’s quiet, sensitive turn underlines a well-written part that goes beyond a stereotypical portrait of a liberal Jew.
Tech credits are superb, and pic has been given a beautiful production, with a rich, dark, period look enhanced by Ken Kelsch’s sharp lensing that mixes black-and-white and color imagery. In the interests of authenticity, production designer Sherman Williams built a gallows modeled on the actual 1930 architect’s plans.