In writing about character actor Jeffrey DeMunn recently, I was thinking back over his impressive body of work, and his frustrating lack of recognition. Perhaps confusion with fellow journeyman James B Sikking has retarded DeMunn’s ascension?
The role that should have defined him, the one that should have gotten him noticed everywhere came in a 1995 HBO film about the manhunt for serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Citizen X. When the bodies of several mutilated children are discovered in the woods just outside of Rostov-on-Don in Soviet Russia, pathologist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), in spite of having no training as a detective, is assigned to the case by Col. Mikhail Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) a lifetime bureaucrat concerned only with placing someone expendable in charge of the case. Burakov uses forensic science to ascertain that the killings are the work of one man. His superiors, Communist Party officials all, dismiss his conclusions. They tell him that serial killers are a “decadent Western phenomenon” and refuse his requests for publicity, computers, and a consult with the FBI. Though Fetisov slowly becomes convinced that Burakov may be on the right track, he knows the futility of bucking the Soviet system – he gives him advice, but little help. Meanwhile, we meet a middle-aged factory administrator named Andrei Chikatilo (DeMunn), seemingly shy and introverted; Andrei is belittled mercilessly by his wife and laughed at by his children. After forgetting to place an order, he is humiliated by his supervisor in front of the entire factory. When we see Andrei at a train station, he wears the thousand yard stare of a desperate man. A train pulls in, gathers passengers, then departs – leaving behind Andrei and a young girl traveling alone. The girl, like most children of the region are poor and hungry, and she agrees to go into the woods with Chikatilo when he offers her something to eat…
As the death toll mounts, the “official” police investigation is limited to Party-approved suspects; as many victims were boys, it is their belief that a homosexual gang is responsible for the killings and Burakov is “encouraged” to pursue that lead exclusively. Disillusioned by the horrors he must bear witness to and discouraged by the bureaucratic wall put up around his investigation, Burakov begins to crack. But his job is saved when a now sympathetic Fetisov blackmails a party official (Joss Ackland) and gives both men – now working more or less as a team – the freedom to run the case their own way, which includes bringing in a psychiatrist (Max Von Sydow) to create a profile for the killer, thereafter dubbed “Citizen X”.
Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X had been made for HBO during a pre-Sopranos era when the cable network seemed to be concentrating on films rather than series. The mid-90s saw HBO producing a string of some of the very best films ever made for the small screen, like the hysterically arch Barbarians at the Gate, a comic-umentary look at the infamous RJR Nabisco buyout, and the searing Indictment: The McMartin Trial, featuring a career-best performance from James Woods as the spotlight-seeking attorney of a family accused of molesting children at privately run daycare center. Citizen X was based on another true story, that of the hunt for a particularly ghastly serial killer, the only one (ever reported, anyway) in the Soviet Union. Chikatilo admitted to some 50-odd murders after his capture, though many believe the actual death toll could have been much higher. The world caught up with the case during his trial, when images of Chikatilo seated inside a cage in the middle of the courtroom made him appear as a literal caged animal (the cage was there to protect Chikatilo, as the court was filled with the parents of his victims, clawing at the cage and screaming for his blood).
Gerolmo’s only major previous credit had been the screenplay for Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, and Citizen X displays the same low-key, near docudrama style – a smart choice when dealing with crimes this horrific, as a more heavily stylized approach would have reduced the admittedly sensational story to the level of direct to video potboiler. But Gerolmo’s neatest trick, and what keeps it relevant today (if somewhat ironically) is the incorporation of not only how the Soviet system suppressed the facts surrounding the case, but also how investigators had been restricted in their methods, to the point where they were only permitted to go after an “approved” list of suspects. And the sad irony of how a system that seemingly existed to keep the individual under the thumb of the state in effect created the perfect climate for a serial killer to operate within is well exploited by Gerolmo. The death-by-attrition of the Soviet system provides a fascinating backdrop for the story, even though it’s doubtful that men in bureaucratic positions would have fared as well as these characters supposedly did in the turbulent post-Glasnost years.
Stephen Rea, with his hangdog expression and eyes that seem to reflect every bit of despair in the world, is note perfect as Burakov. Rea takes the character from a functionary whose only concern is losing his place on the waiting list for a larger apartment, to a committed, passionate investigator. Sutherland has a bad habit of phoning in roles like these, but something (possible playing nearly all of his scenes opposite Rea) obviously inspired him to dig a bit deeper, savoring the role and coating Gerolmo’s dialog with a palpable smugness – when an over-excited Rea runs into Sutherland’s office after discovering that the killer is using the rail system to find his victims, Sutherland deadpans back “I know what the trains are, they sometimes get in the way of my limousine”. Von Sydow’s role is smaller, but where another actor would fill the role with quirks and ticks in order to get noticed, he smartly underplays. But possibly the hardest job falls to DeMunn; Chikatilo wasn’t a super-intelligent mastermind in the Hannibal Lector mold, just a man of below average intelligence with a crummy job and an emotionally distant family – almost a Russian equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s a real tribute to DeMunn that he can generate sympathy for this man without ever asking for it – no falling on the mercy of the court or pleading for mercy or understanding; he knows what he’s doing is wrong and lies to the police from the beginning so that he can keep on doing it. There’s a stunner of a scene late in the movie where Von Sydow reads the “killer profile” that he had created directly to DeMunn, asking him quietly to point out any incorrect information. As he reads the report describing Citizen Xs childhood, family life, and sexual dysfunction, DeMunn shows us Chikatilo – possibly for the first time – acknowledging who he is and begins to weep.
Citizen X is one of the very best “true crime” films ever made for television, but you’d never know it from the enthusiasm of its studio. Considering HBO has about thirty cable networks under its corporate umbrella, we’ve rarely noted its presence on any schedule. The DVD from HBO video is perfectly serviceable; the reserved shooting style and muted color scheme are represented adequately, and the ratio is correct at 1.33x1 fullscreen.