Anchored by a fearless, commanding lead perf by newcomer Jonas Ball as deranged assassin Mark David Chapman, “The Killing of John Lennon” is a harrowing, impressionistic, widescreen tour-de-force that unfolds with the propulsive urgency of a scrapbook thrown into a howling wind. Aiming to accurately chart the agitated gunman’s days and hours prior to emptying a .38 into the Beatle, and the short-term aftermath of the December 1980 tragedy, helmer Andrew Piddington’s relentlessly non-judgmental character study will set tongues wagging far beyond Lennon’s huge fan base and stands to do muscular niche business ahead of even stronger ancillary.
With a near-constant voiceover culled from Chapman’s detailed diary entries and comments, the pic, shot almost entirely on actual locations, immediately sets a jittery pace of information overload that rarely flags for nearly two hours. Cursed with a father who didn’t care and “a mother (Krisha Fairchild) out of ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ” the isolated Chapman, already seething with resentment and in search of a focus for his anger, drifts from Decatur, Ga., to Honolulu. His Japanese-American wife, Gloria (Mie Omori), can’t calm him.
At his local library, Chapman becomes enthralled by J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and a photography book dedicated to Lennon, then enjoying a creative resurgence following the mid-November 1980 release of “Double Fantasy.” Tragically intertwining an attraction to the loathing of “phoneys” espoused by Salinger’s protag, Holden Caulfield, and a perceived clash between Lennon’s idealism and his wealth, Chapman concludes that Lennon is the biggest phoney of all and makes a fateful decision to go to New York and park himself in front of Lennon’s apartment building, the Dakota, with a copy of the record. “I was nobody,” he said later, “until I killed the biggest somebody on Earth.”
Helmer Piddington finds a visual rhythm for Chapman’s growing delusions that is, at once, frighteningly intense in its emotions and kaleidoscopically broad in its period feel. In Ball, he’s found a young actor courageous enough to court the enmity of fans but with the chops to sell Chapman as a seething bundle of narcissistic contradictions: It’s difficult to look away from him.
Late in the film, employing a close-up angle on Ball’s face that recalls both Vincent D’Onofrio’s insane Pvt. Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and the iconic poster image of “The Blair Witch Project,” Piddington succeeds in creating a hair-raising visual approximation of pure, unexplainable evil. Supporting players are fine in service to the Chapman-centric script, while the hallucinatory nature of the killer’s break from reality is underscored by having both Lennon and Yoko Ono played, largely in shadow, by two sets of thesps.
Tech credits are pro down the line, with Roger Eaton’s nervous widescreen images strongly emulating the nocturnal chill of “Collateral” to smashing effect. Makana’s diverse score, spanning plaintive folk and throbbing electronica, never draws overt attention to itself, while Dane Thomsen’s densely layered sound mix approximates the agitated demons that surely scream in Chapman’s head. Per the creatives, the only non-authentic set used was a location in London that subbed for the vestibule of the Dakota where Lennon collapsed. World preem of the pic at the Edinburgh fest was projected in vid, with a 35mm transfer in the works.