In 1995, HBO aired one of the most elegant American movies ever produced about a child-killer: Citizen X. Being a made-for-TV effort, Citizen X suffers from a few tell-tale symptoms, like conspicuous exposition, sentimental strings, and textbook sequencing, but these appear in doses small enough to be swallowed comfortably — and while they may remind us that we’re watching a cable TV movie, that recollection also prompts us to notice how much better these aspects are handled here than elsewhere. When North American viewers think Great Serial Killer Films, our memories usually trot out big, brash numbers like The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter and (for a lot of you, if not for yours truly) Seven. It’s a shame the foreign and independent treatments on the same theme have been banished to a sort of underclass; some of the best serial killer portrayals or stories can be found in films like George Sluizer’s original 1988 The Vanishing, or The Cold Light of Day with Richard E. Grant, or the infamously ragged Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or the incomparable Peeping Tom. Citizen X may have been produced just inside the awning of the US corporate media system, but it was made before HBO earned its mane as one of the lions of the American entertainment world, and it squats a very wee potato indeed next to its better-known feature-film counterparts.
Based on the real-life crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, Citizen X is about one of the most prolific serial killers on record (with 52 known victims), who was lucky enough to flourish under a government which believed that serial murder was “a decadent Western phenomenon.” When the mutilated bodies of children and women began surfacing around Rostov-on-Don in 1982, Soviet officials pulled a classic Amity-Mayor move, and put ideology before investigation. They refused to admit to the public that such an abnormal psychology could emerge from the homogenous body of an indoctrinated collective. A forensic pathologist with no real investigative training was assigned to track down Citizen X, a process that took nearly a decade, thanks to poor resources, an inadequately trained police force, and an overall atmosphere of listlessness. And thanks to a backroom fraternity of ambitious officials, the investigation into the Rostov sex murders was further hampered by a bureaucracy that would have ruffled even Kafka. In its interpretation of events, Citizen X examines the paranoia of a government — over losing its control of the population — as much as it underscores the general paranoia that gripped educated professionals and factory workers alike in the USSR’s final decade.
The film’s made-for-TV pedigree allows for a few more stumbles that are noticeable but not unforgivable — not when they’re set against the film’s strengths, at least. Some might criticize Citizen X for the “accent” presentation of local speech (the international cast, which includes an Irishman, a Canadian, a Swede, two Brits, and a whole bushel of Hungarians, speaks English with Russian swallows); or we could roll our eyes around a little over the typically officious American rendering of Soviet life and society. But these generic flaws are dead moths of inconsequence next to what really makes Citizen X worth seeing: its gripping story, its quiet, haunting atmosphere, its steely performances, and the arcing trajectory of the friendship that develops between the forensic investigator (Stephen Rea) and the Colonel (Donald Sutherland) who batter against the political wall that stands between them and a closed case. Regular readers may have tweaked by now onto my incapacitating allergy to Hollywood sentimentalism, but the sentiment in Citizen X, generated by the relationship between the over-sensitive investigator and his over-understanding superior, has an authentic sweetness that works for me. That sweetness is welcome and almost necessary, because it balances out the raw reality of the child deaths that are allowed to multiply over the years, and the helplessness of Rea’s character as he watches the corpses stack up.
Rea, as Viktor Burakov, evolves over the course of the movie from a diffident lab-coat in a blue-tiled morgue to an unstoppable force of justice with a native genius for crime-solving. Forbidden to contact foreign organizations like the FBI for advice, Burakov teaches himself the basics and, over time, convinces others to practice painstaking forensic methods, like walking the grid of crime scenes and overturning every last stone in a pasture, looking for scraps of junk that might be linked to their killer. Rea’s performance (as usual) is quiet and weirdly pregnant with a fullness that transmits his character’s frustration and deep kindness. Sutherland, as his compassionate superior, is slightly cartoonish, but only slightly, and with good, thematic reason: as a character, he’s a hybrid, negotiating the tipping-point between Burakov’s reality in the field and that of his own somewhat detached life in the political ranks he manipulates on Burakov’s behalf. Those ranks are populated by even more cartoonish and brazenly Kafkaesque figures, who exist in a bubble of luxury and privilege; they brag that their own families have no need to ride the electric trains on which Citizen X appears to be fishing for victims. They are apoplectic ideologues whose party principles are only guises to deceive others and delude themselves — and they are represented best by Joss Ackland’s obnoxious Comrade Bondarchuk. Ackland is one of those unsung That Guy actors who crops up thanklessly again and again on our screen and deserves to be a household name — his corrupt Zuid Afrikan diplomat is the only thing I remember about Lethal Weapon 2, and in Citizen X, he’s once again high art as the villain-VIP who hectors Burakov into a ball on a chair, and muddies the investigation for his own personal and political ends.
A performance-rich film that includes Rea, Sutherland and Ackland is already designed to satisfy, but Citizen X just keeps bringing it: Imelda Staunton has a small role as Burakov’s wife, and Max von Sydow turns up as a wily psychiatrist who writes a profile on Citizen X based on evidence and instinct. The most memorable thing about the movie, though — along with Rea’s character and the film’s moldy powder-blue and gray palette — is Jeffrey DeMunn as Chikatilo. DeMunn has turned up in guest TV roles in everything from The X-Files to Law & Order, and like Ackland, he’s a staple, go-to actor for a certain type of performance — in DeMunn’s case, it’s often (though not exclusively) the muted, sinister everyman. DeMunn’s serial killer is like a cold wet rag pressing up against your skin; you sense his difference, but you can’t put your finger on what makes him distasteful. He looks like your chemistry teacher but he smells like rot. He’s the awkward guy in the corner with zero charisma, a shambler who blends into the walls and lures kids and disenfranchised women into nearby forests to let his inner monster out all over them. And yet, in these killing scenes, he never throws off his drab little everyman shell for a second, because that’s really all he is: a bullied, timid, socially clumsy passerby who hosts a sexual dysfunction and a fatal lack of conscience. There’s nothing exalted or even unusual about DeMunn’s Chikatilo. There is only the real skin of a real predator, with no exaggerated power to mesmerize à la Hopkins, and no contrived blandness à la Spacey. DeMunn is brave enough to show the viewer what the real victims of sex killers see in their last moments: a face, a cock, a knife, and a wince of anguish. His portrait of the wounded regular is one of the most convincing portrayals of a serial killer out there; he is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, which is a near-impossible line for an actor to straddle — and it’s rarely seen in serial-killer movies, whose actors usually reach histrionically for one extreme or the other. If you’re a completist when it comes to these kinds of thrillers, DeMunn’s performance makes Citizen X a can’t-miss. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on February 18, 2008.)