Citizen X (1995)

D: Chris Gerolmo
S: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland

Gripping made-for-tv drama based on the true story of the serial killer who murdered over fifty people in 1980s Russia, and, more particularly, of the dogged police detective who eventually tracked him down. Directed with admirable restraint, the film draws great strength from an thoughtful, intelligent screenplay and from a perfectly realised characterisation from Stephen Rea in the role of the detective. Most surprising of all is the general tone of the picture which, for once, does not attempt to wring suspense out of scenes of stalking or out of the threat of violence. Though it features several scenes of murder, the film does not linger over the details. When violence does occur, there has usually been enough contextual scaffolding to ensure that our attention is drawn to the meaning behind the act rather than the act itself. Most of the drama revolves around the social and political situation which hampered the investigation into the killer's activities. Many of the suspense scenes revolve around detection and prevention, such as attempts to track the killer by patrolling train stations (where he seems to hunt), and the search for clues which will lead the investigation to the man himself.

Though the film shares the generic fascination with the psychology of the killer and, in the manner of these things, draws comparisons between the obsessions of pursuer and pursued, the film is at pains to point out that the pathology of both is integrally related to the society in which they lived. Rea initially finds himself facing the stony-faced Soviet authorities who are more interested in pursuing perceived 'social deviants' than threads of investigation which might bring them to the real culprit (whom Rea suspects is a communist party member). At one point Rea even succeeds in bringing the man in for questioning, only to have him released on the orders of his superiors because of his political affiliations. The killer meanwhile sees himself as besieged by the mundanity of his 'model' Soviet existence, a dutiful party member, husband and father who escapes from the pressures of conformity in acts of seemingly senseless murder.

This level of social self-consciousness was first evinced as far back as M, but it has been rare enough in the genre of late. There is a certain smugness to the film's ability to relate the social and the psychological on this level because of its setting though. Only Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer dared to take this kind of approach to the American serial killer, and then his world was definitively white trash and hence did not threaten the social consciousness of the audience. Films which do locate their manic killers in the world of the American ruling classes tend to be exaggerated satires rather than 'realistic' dramas of this kind. Director Chris Gerolmo finds himself therefore free to take an interrogative, socially self-conscious and non-sensational approach in a way which an American-set drama would not. This means that he can concentrate on both foreground and background action with an equally focused critical and analytical (though arguably politically jaundiced) eye.

Rea seems the perfect choice for the detective. Wearing his usual sleepily determined expression, the actor imbues the character with a convincing range of emotion. He registers the character's frustration on several levels, from simple knee-jerk irritation with the system which hampers him to the more complex and destructive self-loathing which consumes his character as the killer continues his rampage over the years of investigation. Donald Sutherland is also good as the detective's only supporter in both the communist and post-communist eras. The actor's well-balanced sense of underplay and slyly self-aware eyebrow-raising works extremely well here, as one gets the definite sense that this is a man who could survive the transition to opportunistic capitalism relatively unscathed. Joss Ackland is also effective in the role of a rather hateful communist commissioner, as is Max Von Sydow as an elderly psychologist who profiles the madman and is himself thought of as a quack by the communist authorities.

Citizen X is one of the most interesting serial killer films of the decade of Silence of the Lambs. It is a genuine original in that it does not attempt to follow the formula and go for the easy shocks and scares or simply try to find strange ways to vary the formula with gimmicks and twists. Ironically, this makes it more of a 'classic' than many of its contemporaries in the sense that it owes its heritage not to Silence of the Lambs, but M and In Cold Blood.The film is quite disturbing, not least of all because its almost matter-of-fact tone (pushed slightly to the edge during the murder scenes, but this is appropriate and feels justified stylistically) creates a sense of reality which becomes more oppressively powerful as the film progresses. This pays off especially well at the end, not because of a dramatic shoot out or showdown, but because there is a palpable sense of relief that a seemingly interminable nightmare has ended. Well worth a look, even for diehard genre buffs. A gorefest it is not, but it is certainly worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.