Given the mind-boggling facts behind the BTK killer case, it’s amazing that this hastily assembled pic proves so curiously flat and uninvolving. The production’s only real merit, in fact, lies in a standout performance by Gregg Henry as Dennis Rader, though that skews the narrative more toward “Dennis: Portrait of a Serial Killer” territory than its title suggests.
Rader not only killed 10 people over a 17-year period but taunted and eluded Wichita authorities for roughly three decades; anniversary coverage of the case prompted him to resurface and eventually led to his arrest. In court, he delivered a stunningly impassive discussion of what he clinically referred to as his “projects,” in which he would bind, torture and kill his victims (hence the initials BTK).
Clearly laboring under rights limitations (the team of investigators is consolidated into two), the story deflates every time the camera drifts away from Henry, who is practically unrecognizable under the makeup, to focus on lead detective Jason Magida (Robert Forster). A stoic Foster reads painfully stilted, noirish narration. His partner, played by Michael Michele, looks even more model-like and unconvincing than usual as a Kansas homicide detective.
Director Stephen Kay provides choppy, grainy glimpses in re-enacting the murders as Rader recounts them in court, making this telepic one of those rare instances where depiction of the crimes is probably too restrained. The movie also fails to create any sense of urgency surrounding the investigation, though that’s perhaps in part because Rader did so much to reveal himself in correspondence with police.
At its core, then, it’s solely by virtue of veteran character actor Henry’s yeoman work that the chilling image of Rader as a jovial, churchgoing member of the community — someone who derived almost gleeful satisfaction from the media attention — vaguely emerges. As such, his monologue near the end, when Rader confesses, proves the one memorable sequence, albeit a trifle late in coming.
Unfortunately, it’s followed by an irksome moment in which Forster’s detective ponders the fear such monsters stir and how we have “no choice but to find the strength, the faith, to keep going.” For a network with nine hours of episodic crime drama on its primetime roster, lamenting society’s anxiety about being victimized might just be the definition of a word you don’t hear much in Kansas: chutzpah.