Tuesday, December 21, 2010

DEAR MR. GACY (2010)

Just a few months into his freshman year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jason Moss became obsessed with serial killers. With a career in the FBI or forensics as his end goal, he sat down with an endless amount of texts on famous murderers and forensic psychology, took up a large sack of immortal teenage hubris and began to write to some of the most infamous monsters in modern history, from the point of view of someone who would most fit the profile of each one’s individual favorite victim. In the case of Charles Manson, Moss adopted the tone of a budding militant dissatisfied with “the establishment”. With Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Jason posed as the head of a Nevada Satanic Cult, seeking guidance from one who truly knew “the Dark Lord”. And with John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Clown Killer” who raped and murdered more than thirty young men and boys, burying their bodies beneath his own house, Jason’s tactic was that of someone sexually-confused, emotionally and physically abused by family, and desperately lonely.

In the end, all of Jason’s intended targets wrote him back. In most cases, he maintained an ongoing penpal relationship with his pals in the pen. With Gacy, his relationship got much deeper, much more twisted, and much more difficult to sever as the letters continued. Recounting his experiences in his book, The Last Victim, Jason took on the persona not only of “Jason Moss, the timid victim” but also of his younger brother, “Jarrod Moss, the new disciple of John Wayne Gacy”. In attempting to manipulate Gacy into revealing personal secrets, as he had with the other killers, Jason forced himself to live out some of Gacy’s most twisted fantasies—at least in the narrative he had created in the letters—including becoming a subservient sexual slave to his brother. While brother Jarrod was real, the paper-trail Jarrod and his relationship with fictional Jason was not—as he emphatically points out multiple times throughout the book. It was all Jason Moss and his perceived control over Gacy.

The letter exchanges turned into weekend phone conversations. And as Moss juggled multiple “friendships” with the killers—forcing him to keep an elaborate time-line of record keeping so he knew who he was for each man—his schoolwork suffered, his real friendships and relationships deteriorated, his home life with his parents increased its normal tug-of-war, and he found himself living more and more internally, almost trapped in the roles he’d created. Yet he never once felt as if the control had slipped. It was always Jason Moss, the genius student, and not Jason Moss the fictional victim, who had control over the Clown Killer. There was no struggle; to Moss’s mind, Gacy bought his rap hook, line and sinker.

Until the day Gacy finally backed him into a corner, sending him money and a plane ticket to visit him in the Menard Correctional Institution, where he was awaiting execution following the rejection of his final appeal. Gacy even went so far as to bribe a guard into posing as the warden for Moss’s mother, to assure her that her son would be in perfectly safe hands. In reality, the hands Jason had played into were the most dangerous ones imaginable.

There has been a lot of debate as to the amount of veracity present in Moss’s book, The Last Victim. Having written it with his college professor and mentor, Jeffrey Kottler, PhD (who seems, if possible, even more narcissistic in his brief forward and afterward than Moss does throughout the entirety of the admittedly patience-wearing narrative), Jason is arrogant, self-absorbed and manipulative from the start, but all by his own admission, which makes his flat intentions easier to swallow. Again and again, Moss states that failure is never an option for him, whether be it a school assignment or an argument with his “controlling” mother. An important character in the book, Mrs. Moss is painted as set in eternal struggle with her headstrong son, forbidding him from going forward with his project despite her own fascination with true crime planting its initial seeds in him. For much of the book, it’s his mother who is the genuine antagonist in his life. The serial killers become little more than screwed up mail buddies.

But every now and then, Jason stops and seemingly thinks about what he’s doing, how these dark and twisted individuals are affecting him personally. But he doesn’t let that stop him, not even after his terrifying face-to-face with Gacy.

Which is where most people’s suspension of disbelief seems to come crashing down. Kottler, in his intro, says the question they got most was “why”—why would a straight-A, all-American kid (a weightlifter, a kickboxer, on his way to sainthood) involve himself with the damaged lives of these horrible people? Why would his parents ‘allow’ him to do so? Why would the killers bother to write him back? Why would the Menard prison, even if Gacy was days away from state mandated death, allow the historically unhinged killer to spend any time alone in a room with this na├»ve kid? For the latter, bribery is offered as an excuse for the climax. For the former questions, it’s always Jason’s will that surmounted the “why?”, barreling forward with the distinctly alpha male definition: “no one tells me what to do”.

After The Last Victim hit the bestseller lists in 1999, Moss hit the talk show circuit and Hollywood batted a big-screen adaptation back and forth. As it passed hands and was ultimately abandoned, Moss became a criminal defense attorney and weathered the predictable waves that he’d lied about it all, about some, about details. Further speculation was derived from the book’s odd shifts in tone and narration (possibly attributable to Kottler’s attempt to “humanize” Moss when he descends his deepest into me-first prickdom) that Moss was affected more than he ever let on, that he was living vicariously through his correspondents, relishing the crimes that he could never bring himself to do, but had always haunted and fascinated him.

It’s this speculation that forms the rubbery spine of Dear Mr. Gacy. Using genuine passages from letters to and from Moss and Gacy, Kellie Madison’s script tries to make sense out of Moss the man. Forced to shuffle around some details, Dear Mr. Gacy’s storyline focuses on Moss and his relationship with Gacy, jettisoning Manson, Dahmer, et al, for the sake of dramatic momentum. She proposes that his project was for a term paper on criminal psychology before setting down to the meat. Writing and rewriting his first letter to perfect the tone of a lonely, timid teenager, Moss manages to catch the Clown Killer’s attention, his letter standing out from the piles of daily mail Gacy received at his comfortable cell. Between painting and long phone calls with his lawyer, Gacy becomes intrigued by this on-paper Jason Moss and attempts to reel him in further, playing on this perceived need for friendship and guidance. He tests the waters with references to masturbation and homosexuality before opening up the possibility of an encounter between Jason and his brother (renamed “Alex” in the film). Clearly, Gacy has found something with which to entertain himself during those long days of confinement.

Right around Act 2, however, Madison’s script starts to veer into a speculative direction that does not exist in The Last Victim. While Jason intones over and again that his constant research of murder and mayhem to stay “in character” for his various pen pals took its toll on him emotionally and psychically, Madison takes that opportunity to turn the movie into Apt Pupil. Over the phone, Gacy instructs Jason on how to observe people in order to learn and manipulate them, which leads to Jason stalking a pretty co-ed and, later, a potentially violent encounter with a motel prostitute.

Whereas in the book, Moss doth protest almost too much about any trace of homosexuality, the movies goes out of its way to ensure that the audience knows that gay = fucked up and/or evil. When his research leads him to paying a male prostitute for instruction on lingo and jargon, the situation, of course, ends in a roofied Jason staggering out of the bar from Cruisin’, dodging sodomy left and right. While Gacy declares that he’s bisexual, the movie quickly mentions that he’s a “homo” who hadn’t had sex with his own wife for years before his conviction. And, of course, Gacy only wants Jason’s sweet ass for himself and that’s his sole motivation for his evil.

Whether this homophobia is inferred from elements in Jason’s story or from producer invective is not clear, but these moments stand out as false for minutes after they occur—particularly when the script bends some of the real instances to suit the narrative needs. In the book, Jason does contact a male prostitute through classified ads and does pay him for a brief interview, but it takes place in the middle of the day, in a Vegas strip diner, with both of them dressed for work. This transmogrification into something seedy and dangerous is unnecessary. As is a moment where Jason loses his cool with “Alex’s” schoolyard bully. In the book, Jason forces Jarrod to fight his tormentor on his own and put it behind him, which illustrates the sort of control Jason exerts over everyone. You stand on your own feet. In the movie, the sequence is not only out-of-place but only serves the film’s narrative that Jason is inherently weak-willed and under Gacy’s control the entire time. The cat-and-mouse aspect of the story—who is in control, the student or the killer?—is lost in the After School Special of “Never Write to a Gay Multiple Murderer”.

However, the homophobic overtones aside, these small detail-shifts will annoy only those familiar with The Last Victim. Viewers going into Dear Mr. Gacy blind will discover a competently-directed movie (by Svetozar Ristovski, produced by Clark Peterson of another serial killer movie, Monster) filled to the brim with terrific performances, particularly on the parts of Jesse Moss (no relation) and the great William Forsythe, as Jason and Gacy respectively. Forsythe exudes both menace and charisma in every scene and his presence dominates the film from the moment he’s introduced, even during long passage of his physical absence. Jesse Moss takes the occasionally unpleasant and even creepy Jason Moss and turns him into a sweet, even sympathetic kid who doesn’t want to admit he’s in over his head. But it’s the sweetness that stands out, not the arrogance, and that’s what Madison wants to focus on, as it underscores the “why?” Making Jason sweet and upstanding undercuts his ego-driven passion for “getting one over” on both Gacy and the FBI. And it opens the doorway to the almost-exhausted “You’re just like me!” confrontations. While this route is perfectly satisfying for a movie-of-the-week, it boils a complicated emotional and intellectual story down to very trite elements.

Which in no way harms the tension or the impact of the inevitable climax—indeed, the movie takes the final face-to-face with Gacy a little further and a little faster than the book and makes you wonder—likely not for the first time—if Jason was holding back his version of what actually happened when he finally met his correspondent and realized that he was trapped in his victim persona.

Ultimately, neither the book nor the movie is 100% satisfying on its own. Taken together, they seem to be two parts of a still-unfinished whole. Jesse Moss allows us a glimpse behind the dead eyed arrogance of the real Jason Moss (who is shown on Sally Jesse Raphael during the end credits) and find the human that resides there. The book gives us a peek behind the curtain of the facts and the research at the monsters that lurk in every town.

What the movie cannot do, of course, is reconcile who the “real” Jason Moss was. Of course, no one can. On June 6, 2006, Moss killed himself in his Nevada home, which reopened the speculative floodgates. Had he allowed Gacy too far in to his psyche? Had he come too close to the darkness within himself? Or was he afraid the bullshit he’d concocted, as many felt the book had been, would be revealed for what it truly was: the product of a disturbed and immature student from Las Vegas?

We’re left with questions from an engrossing best-selling book about serial killers, and a very tense and well-made movie based on what they had to work with (out on DVD from Anchor Bay as we speak).

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