Friday September 6, 1996
Tim Metcalfe's "Killer: A Journal of Murder" has much of the sentiments of "Dead Man Walking" and is far removed from the standard serial killer thriller. It's not as much a specific plea against the death penalty as it is against "the system"--our society and its administration of justice that tends to brutalize criminals rather than to rehabilitate them. That "Killer," a true story, occurred nearly 70 years ago only adds to its impact because it makes us ponder how much America has really changed at a time when there is a clamor for more and more prisons.
Yet "Killer" goes beyond sending a message to illuminate a remarkable friendship between Carl Panzram (James Woods, in a galvanizing, Oscar-caliber portrayal), a confessed serial killer of 21 people, and a rookie guard, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), at Leavenworth State Penitentiary. We're left to wonder whether Lesser would have taken an interest in Panzram when he observes him being routinely brutalized by guards had he known at the outset that the man was a serial killer.
It might not have made a difference because neither man is ordinary. Panzram is as brilliant as he is savage, whereas Lesser was actually far more atypical for the time and place: a Jewish leftist intellectual who forsook being a tailor to become a prison guard with the vague hope of doing good. Somehow, Lesser's stubborn, consistent decency does register with Panzram, and in defiance of rules, Lesser smuggles pencils and papers to Panzram so that he might tell his terrible life story, a work upon which this film is based--and which took Lesser 40 years to get told.
You could wish that Metcalfe, a seasoned screenwriter in an assured directorial debut, had told us a tad more about Panzram's formative years as a member of a large Minnesota farming family headed by German immigrant parents. A swift flashback tosses out a hint of the "bad seed" theory that's never followed up as "Killer" drives home its assertion that once Panzram made a couple of youthful missteps he became systematically savaged by penal institutions. You could also wish that we could see Panzram at least entertaining the notion that he bears some personal responsibility for the monster he has become.
By now it should be clear that Carl Panzram is perfect for James Woods, who arguably has never had so rich an opportunity to express such bristling wit, passion, rage and irony, revealing the humanity--vulnerability, even--in so dangerous, bestial a man. His Panzram is so full of energy and anarchic spirit he jazzes up the entire film, subverting its pious liberalism and offering a jolting contrast to the gentle--but not wimpy--Lesser, well played by Leonard.
There are other vivid presences in the film, especially Steve Forrest as a burly, reform-minded Oregon warden whose trust in Panzram comes too late for the prisoner to be able to handle it. It's gratifying--and all-too-rare--that a veteran like Forrest has been so imaginatively cast. The ubiquitous Lili Taylor turns up in an unbilled cameo as a speak-easy patron, and Ellen Greene impresses as a naive small-town librarian.
As a period piece, "Killer," shot in Connecticut, is evocative without being showy. Ultimately, Woods is better than the picture, but he's so much the picture it scarcely matters.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Killer: A Journal of Murder, 1996. R, for strong language and strong, brutal violence, including a rape. A Legacy Releasing presentation of a Spelling Films production. Writer-director Tim Metcalfe. Producers Janet Yang and Mark Levinson. Executive producers Oliver Stone and Melinda Jason. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch. Editor Richard Gentner. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Music Graeme Revell. Production designer Sherman Williams. Art director Jeff Wallace. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. James Woods as Carl Panzram. Henry Lesser as Robert Sean Leonard. Steve Forrest as Warden Charles (Spud) Casey. Ellen Greene as Elizabeth Wyatt.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times