Killer: A Journal of Murder–Produced by Oliver Stone, Directed by Tim Metcalfe, Starring James Woods

Based on a true story, Killer: A Journal of Murder is a disturbing prison drama about the unlikely relationship–and friendship–between a self-proclaimed reprobate, who may have been America’s first serial killer, and a conscientious ward seeking his redemption.

Oliver Stone’s production, which features top-notch performances by James Woods, as the remorseless criminal, and Robert Sean Leonard, as the liberal guardian, deserves to be seen on the big screen before moving on to TV, Cable, video and other venues.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between Killer: A Journal of Murder and Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, as both are intriguing tales about the complex interaction–and fateful attraction–of two individuals who stand at the opposite poles of the spectrum. Both films deal with the controversial issue of capital punishment, and both center on the psyche of a criminal and his slow, torturous road to attaining truth and redemption. At the same time, there’re enough differences to warrant viewing of both dramas, each of which is fascinating in its own right.

Set in the l920s in Leavenworth Prison, story introduces Henry Lesser (Leonard) at the beginning of his career as a guard with lofty dreams and hopes for 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 towards the prisoners, Henry’s value system begins to collapse and he starts questioning the whole validity of the penitentiary system that he had sworn to serve.

Carl represents everything Henry is not–his soul is filled with hate, his body with violence, his conscience seemingly empty. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that the fascination that Henry, an educated, liberal Jew, holds for Carl, is based on the fact that he’s never met anyone like him before. When Henry discovers that Carl longs to write down 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, with his fellows watching indifferently, ups the ant and may cause problems with the rating board. But it’s not only a crucial scene but also one that will intrigue sociologists and criminologists. Carl claims that it’s society that has made him the “animal” he is and therefore society should take responsibility and execute him.

Henry refuses to believe him and brings noted psychoanalyst Menninger (John Bedford Lloyd) into prison, 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 an l930 jury finds him guilty and determines death by hanging, Carl sighs with relief and 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 different meaning.

Film is based on a book, co-authored by Thomas E. Gaddis, who scribbed the prison classic The Birdman of Alcatraz, and James O. Long. Metcalfe’s tightly constructed, fast-moving scenario is intelligent and knowing, but the real case may be too complex for a 90-minute dramatization. Though he 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, helmer conveniently settles for a less ambitious task, a relationship film between two opposites. Ultimately, Killer is not as complex or multi-layered as Dead Man Walking, and the prosaic, earnest nature of some sequences feels like TV Movie-of-the-Week.

Nonetheless, whatever else is wrong with the film, 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 “accepts” his fate. His highly charged, intelligent presence complements his intense performance, which combines natural arrogance and bitter hostility in equal measure. In what’s possibly 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.

Technical credits are good and physically the movie is impressive, with a rich, dark, period look, enhanced by Ken Kelsch’s sharp lensing and Sherman Williams’ evocative design.

Credits

An Oliver Stone and Spelling Films International presentation of an IXTLAN production in association with Breakheart Films. Produced by Janet Yang and Mark Levinson. Executive producers, Oliver Stone, Melinda Jason. Directed, written by Tim Metcalfe, script based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long. Camera, Ken Kelsch; editor, Richard Gentner; supervising editor, Harvey Rosenstock; music, Graeme Revell; production design, Sherman Williams; art direction, Jeff Wallace; costume design, Kathryn Morrisn; sound, Susumu Tokunow; associate producers, George Linardos, Lisa Moiselle; assistant director, John Vohlers; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Fest, Jan. 7, 1995. Running time: min.

Carl Panzram………….James Woods
Henry Lesser…..Robert Sean Leonard
Elizabeth Weaks………Ellen Greene
Esther Lesser………….Cara Buono
R.G. Grieser…….Robert John Burke
Warden Charles………Steve Forrest
Karl Menninnger…John Bedford Lloyd
Sally………………..Lili Taylor