Killtoberfest 1 – #20: Citizen X

In All, Movies by Kyu

Today’s Killtoberfest entry, Citizen X, is about the terrible distance between these two images:

It’s a serial killer procedural made for HBO in 1995. The cast is excellent–Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow, and Jeffrey DeMunn as the killer (not a spoiler). The film makes a virtue of television production values; its Soviet setting looks small, cheap and depressing. But the writing and performances are top notch.

The story, based on true facts, is about the manhunt for one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Such a claim usually invokes notions of a killer with extreme bloodthirst, or a mastermind clever enough to never leave a clue. But DeMunn’s middle-aged psychopath is a rather mundane murderer. He succeeded in killing so many and for so many years only because of the inefficiencies and corruptions of the Soviet bureaucracy, which preferred committing police resources toward rounding up known deviants (homosexuals) over actual investigative measures. The killings are an embarrassment to the state–serial murder is an American social disorder, they claim–and so they are swept under the rug. And there, where the eye is turned away, they go on and on and on.

Stephen Rea stars as the detective on the case, his first and only, and the film focuses on the awful toll on him taken by years of hunting one man and fighting the system from within. He cannot have the resources he needs, or the power to direct the task force assigned to the case. His sole ally, the politically-minded Colonel played (beautifully) by Sutherland, cannot even praise him or acknowledge that he’s on the right track while the Soviet system remains in place.

Most procedurals eventually turn out to be thrillers, but Citizen X smartly focuses on the process, dedicating itself to making you feel the frustration and guilt Rea’s detective endures throughout years of fruitless investigation. It’s a long film that made me ache for justice to be done, while personal hypocrisy, vanity, and denial stand in the way. The real horror here isn’t DeMunn’s killer (1), it’s the monstrous system that allowed him to operate with impunity for decades, and the evil, venal, selfish, cowardly people who ran it.

1 The killer’s psychology isn’t random. He’s an impotent, everyman factory worker whose powerlessness leads him to kill–in a way, the murders are his only way of individuating himself within the Soviet system of enforced equality. The detective notes at one point that his victims are children, young women, the poor, society’s weakest and most vulnerable members, and the ones hurt the most by the USSR’s dysfunctional government.