True crime drama may not be a staple for A&E, but its latest original movie, “The Riverman,” certainly makes an impressive case for the network’s future in the genre. The pic, based on Robert Keppel’s best-selling book, achieves what so many others of its skein cannot — real psychological drama.
What flashier crime shows try to convey with rubber gloves and tweezers, director Bill Eagles exudes with carefully constructed close-ups and an eerie conversational style that is as effective as it is unnerving. In fact, the quid pro quo relationship that was such a cinematic stroke of brilliance in “Silence of the Lambs” was actually based on the working relationship between convicted serial killer Ted Bundy and Keppel, a homicide detective who worked on the Bundy case.
In order to catch another killer, Keppel got Bundy to confess to his methods in detail days before his execution. Their gritty and unsettling exchanges serve as the basis for the movie.
Pic begins in Washington state in 1982 as Dave Reichert (Sam Jaeger), a young and earnest detective, looks into the deaths of 13 women in the Green River area. Saddled with a pathetically understaffed task force and inter-departmental turmoil, Reichert turns to Keppel (Bruce Greenwood), now a university professor, for help. Initially, the murders lack the news appeal and immediacy of the Bundy cases, most of which involved coeds and housewives. The Green River killer preys on prostitutes, and half the time, according to a fairly indifferent police lieutenant, people don’t know or care whether these women are missing.
Keppel, however, hasn’t gotten over the fact that Bundy never confessed to 18 of the murders in his jurisdiction. His wife, Sande (Kathleen Quinlan), has never gotten over what his commitment to the case nearly did to the family. Reichert’s persistence along with the pull to bring closure to Keppel’s own life as well the case draws him back into the dark world of criminal profiling.
Meanwhile, sequestered in his own complex in a Florida jail awaiting his execution, Bundy (Cary Elwes) sees the news accounts of the Green River killer and contacts Keppel with ideas on the case.
Keppel has shown unprecedented devotion to murder cases; going as far as lugging bundles of mail in the dark of night down to the river to understand what it is like to transport a body. At one point, he nearly gets arrested as he “trolls” dark alleys for prostitutes in the same manner as the killer is believed to behave. Still, bargaining with Bundy — getting into his mind — is a risk even for Keppel.
As Bundy, Elwes offers a chilling portrait, perfectly conveying the two faces of the man who tells Keppel in earnest, “Do you think it’s easy, to kill and keep yourself socially acceptable? You try being a serial killer and keeping a day job.” Instead of relying on the charming aspects of Bundy’s persona, Elwes taps into his creepy core, channeling the monster of a man who provides insight into his killings in exchange for crime scene photos — his preferred method of sexual stimulation.
With similar devotion to the role, Greenwood as Keppel immerses himself in the character without overplaying the psychological ramifications of his career and forgoes the requisite breakdown scene or tortured soul routines. His Keppel is a man drifting away into darkness, even under the watchful eye of his wife.
Quinlan, in what could have easily been a throwaway suffering wife role, pulls off fairly hokey dialogue such as “You come to bed and you lay there and your hands are so full of death” without a hint of melodrama. Her character’s pain, and that of Keppel’s, is clearly palpable.
Working in tandem with Eagles’ vision is Steve Cosens’ highly stylized camera work. Together, the two use several effective techniques including flashbacks, close-ups and lingering profiles to propel the story.
Although truly disturbing subject matter, Tom Towler’s script is true to the genre but not totally humorless. He puts a very pedestrian face on the characters involved, going as far to include a bit about motel chambermaids who giggle and gawk at a buffed Reichert as he works out sans a shirt in his room. Keppel’s digs about his “fan club” and workout routine isn’t just a break from the bleak story, but a nod to the power and disarming nature that good looks can have in society. His script also effectively reinforces just exactly what people like Keppel and Reichert are putting on the line to protect the public.
As Bundy tries to explain the nature of killers to Keppel, he tells him “These are complex people, Bob. People who have things to teach us about life, about ourselves.” The trouble is most people don’t have the nerve or the strength to listen.
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