Murder intrigues us. We play games where we can play out our craziest fantasies of how to kill, maim, and altogether mutilate our fellow man. As a species we cannot help but be be curious about the forbidden and if there is one universal right and wrong it is that killing another person is wrong. So is it any wonder that serial killers are treated like macabre celebrities? We have numerous tv shows dedicated to this very act and one where the killer himself is the good guy. I want to take a look at serial killers in cinema. "M" is necessary viewing for anyone interested in exploring the genre lets just get that out of the way right now. For this article I will be staying much more contemporary. Specifically I will examine two forms of serial killer film: the procedural realism approach and the high paced mystery adventure. I will analyze the films through the filter of a quote by Commissioner Niemans in The Crimson Rivers which says, "A serial killer kills to exist, this is a pointer, a pointer kills to point us in a direction." I wish to contrast the two and point out what threads are sewn through both forms and at which point these two branch off and become their own entity.
First off let us define what we're watching.
serial killer film - I am going to define this as a film in which there is a series of murders occuring, seemingly connected to which their is an ongoing investigation done with some cooperation by the law. Also the film is much more interested in the case rather than the acts themselves, therefore "slasher" films need not apply.
The four films I will reference are these
Zodiac - David Fincher
Memories of Murder - Bong Joon-ho
The Oxford Murders - Alex De La Iglesia
The Crimson Rivers - Mathieu Kassovitz
To begin with lets tackle the portrayal of the serial killers themselves. In all four of these films the serial killer is elusive throughout the entirety of each film, seen only in glimpses here and there until the end, but we'll get to that in a minute.Doing this accomplishes two things. One, we now have a legend being created before our eyes. Never seeing the killer creates intrigue surrounding not only who he/she is but how they are able to elude our investigators so well. In Memories of Murder bong joon-ho shows the killer only a few times and never once do we get a clear look. The first instance is easy to miss if you're not paying attention as the killer is out of focus in the background rising from the ground only to disappear back to the earth. He reappears a few moments later for a split second, and again the few seconds we see of him show a monstrous body language as he assaults one of his victims.
In Zodiac the killer whenever the killer is in fram his is always hidden in shadow. The one time it is not hidden by shadow is when he attacks a couple during the daytime wearing something you might think a supervillain would wear, complete with symbol on the chest and facemask. By constantly filming the killer as a fleeting object and never letting the audience see them makes them completely unrelatable. It strips them of any kind of identifiable human traits, in fact it begins to force us to think of them as symbols. In both of these "real" movies the murderer becomes a symbol for pure evil, representing the dredges of humanity rising from below the earth, like in the korean film, to commit the most heinous atrocities.
So these two examples present the killer as inhuman, something we could never understand and something we must extinguish. In the adventure movies the killer is almost a formality, a neccesity for the greater mystery to exist. The killer merely serves as a vehicle to drive a much larger puzzle that must be solved, and THAT is what the heroes are interested in. It is the puzzle that obsesses our heros in the ADVENTURE films. The Oxford Murders lays this out and foreshadows the whole movie with the opening scene.The movie opens with a war scene and we have Wittgenstein focusing on a logic problem rather than paying attention to all the killing that goes on around him. This relates directly to how John Hurt and Elijah Wood will try to solve the killers puzzles rather than search out who the killer is or even try that hard to stop them. Much like Wittgenstein they are focusing on how to solve the problem rather than focusing on stopping people from getting killed. While the prior films discuss in great length who the killer might be almost ALL of the conversations had revolve around the killers intelligience and the next move in this complicated game of chess. Relating this back to Niemans' quote we see that these investigators are following the murders to a solution rather than searching out the killer himself.
In both Zodiac and Memories of Murder the directors highlight in detail the different tools or lack of tools detectives have for solving crimes. Fincher highlights the difficulty of investigation in an age without cellphones and modern technology. He shoots numerous phone exchanges between the SFPD and the various other police departments from the surrounding areas. These exchanges are great because we see how overly complicated the whole process is and without something as simple as email these officers have to consistently be making contact with each person to loop everyone in rather than being able to hit "cc." In Memories of Murder we have country cops who are for lack of a better word "brutish." Their detective tools involve intimidation and forcing confessions whenever they can. The directors show us in detail what the detectives go through and we see how slow and difficult the process is. Throughout it all we see the detective begin to crumble psychologically from the stress and dissappointment of the case.
While the real investigators look at the scene of the crime intensely and talk to witnesses hoping to find traces of the killer, the investigators in the other films look for "clues" to their puzzle. John Hurt gets much more excited upon discovering a triangle or other logical symbols rather than finding fingerprints or hairs. This is because he needs to solve the puzzle before he finds the killer. Elijah Wood is there with him in a battle of wits almost racing John Hurt to solve this grand puzzle both becoming obsessed with it. They both follow the killers "points" rather than the murders themselves. This parallels the obsession that the investigators in the other movies feel, but here since the emotion is taken out of it we don't see them begin to crumble like the detectives do in Memories of Murder.
Then you have Crimson Rivers which walks a middle ground in regards to the investigation. The two cops still question witnesses and search for forensic evidence but they are also just as interested in the ovewhelming mystery that is unfolding as a result of their investigation. Now, this film also differs in that none of the detectives begin to get overwhelmed by the case in the way that the heros in the other films do. Cassel and Reno keep working the case and continually make progress until all the pieces fall together in a very fast paced climax. Lastly, this being the film that provided the inspiration for what little focus I have it is also the film in which the characters are the most self aware. These characters understand that the killings are meaningful, but more than that they know the killings serve a greater purpose than just "revenge" or a personification of evil.
Before we finish here I want to look at the resolution of each of the films. In both of the "real" films the killer is never found. They both finish with the investigators trying to track down one last suspect in the hopes that they will finally get some closure. Of course, they never get it, the stories are based on true stories and the killers really were never found. I mentioned before that these films paint these killers as a personification of evil, and of course evil can never be killed. By the end of these films are characters are at a low point. Memories of Murder shows our detectives so desperate to find the killer that they are willing to look past DNA evidence and still pursue the wrong suspect, but ultimately evil lives on.
The other two films finish with a much less ominous message. The Oxford Murders gives us a nice double ending in which we learn that overly complicated serial killer stories are a joke and easily manufactured. The two characters have one last battle of wits as they discuss responsibility and fault. The Crimson Rivers finishes with our serial killer "pointing" our detectives to the final answer. Reno and Cassel find their killer, solve the mystery and everything is wrapped up in a very satisfactory package. While the other two films finish with ambiguity forcing us to think about the nature of everything we've just watched both of these films give us a concrete resolution to the problems at hand.
Obviously the "real" films are going to be much deeper and a more intense experience, but upon closer inspection one can really see how similar traits exist withing the various forms of serial killer films in order to achieve very different experiences. The "adventure" films move at a breakneck pace as we race through amazing settings finding clues and following the "points" that the murders point us to, resulting in a thoroughly exciting film. They may not be the most thought provoking but both of these examples give you some nice entertainment for a few hours. The "real" films succeed on a deeper level and ultimately exist as much better "films" than the adventure genre. Again relatively simple conclusions, but through writing this piece and viewing these films back to back seeing the similarities and differences really prove these theories. So this is the end of part 2. I'll probably continue with relatively contemporary films for a few more entries before i begin exploring some older fare. Thank you all for reading i've thoroughly enjoyed this so far especially taking something that will most likely never see serious criticism such as the two "adventure" serial killer films and searching for some underlying meaning or connection. Or maybe im just overthinking something thats not there. You tell me...please feel free to comment.
One last thought - finally saw Fantastic Mr Fox...definitely going to need to rethink my 2009 best of list now.