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).

Friday, December 3, 2010

MONSTERS (2010)




Three things I know about the Human Race as a species:

1.)            The sky is always falling;
2.)            We can survive anything;
3.)            We rarely, if ever, learn from our mistakes.

Those three elements are in constant play. We will always succumb to mass hysteria, a planet-wide Simpsons mob, over the smallest problem, whether caused by man or nature. After all the arm-waving and screaming we’ll overcome said problem. Then we will gleefully repeat the process, for we thrive on strife, drama and argument.

While Hollywood loves to exploit #1 for box office gains, setting drama right in the center of a catastrophic plummeting sky with disaster movies and hybrids of disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, The Towering Inferno, Volcano—ad infinitum, the “little guy” working outside the studio system rarely has the budget for the disaster and has to focus on the fallout. While the big boys have gotten in on this act as well—The Road, The Book of Eli—their scripts are generally placed years after the disaster, portraying the human race as hard-scrabbling mutants fighting each other for scraps of food. The “little guy” knows that #2 is a much more believable scenario: after the screaming stops, life goes on. As long as the Wal-Marts continue to operate, everything will be fine. The ground-eye view of a world-changing event, through the eyes of its survivors, is not only easier to depict on a limited budget but is usually more interesting to view human drama after all the explode-y parts are done.

Which was the thought of British writer/director Gareth Edwards and his new movie, the festival-darling Monsters. Six years after an exploratory probe crash landed in Mexico, new “life forms” have begun to sprout up South of the Border—and by “life forms” we mean “the creatures”: hundred-foot-tall squid/jellyfish hybrids that float above the trees and toss vehicles far into the air. Enormous and frightening as these rarely-glimpsed creatures are, they’re also deceptively beautiful and graceful swimming over the “Infected Zone”, as the middle part of Mexico has come to be known, but the devastation they leave behind is obvious: burned out homes, wrecked and rusting overturned vehicles, the debris of vicious battles between the towering creatures and our military’s finest weapons of mass protection. Television news, omnipresent even in the most impoverished areas, blare constant warnings of new threats, of the dangers of the upcoming creature migration, while in more populated areas, signs and graffiti demand that the military stop bombing innocent people and their villages whenever a creature is sighted. In fact, little is said about “random” attacks by the creatures. The “infected zone” seems scarcely infected, save for odd fungus growing the creatures’ eggs, pulsing with color in response to light and outside stimuli. But how this “infects” or even affects civilization is never spelled out. It’s the military that seems to be doing the bulk of the damage. And, of course, exploiting the situation.

Following one siege between monster and military, we are introduced to photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder, who shoots the rotting carcass of a dead creature before inquiring the whereabouts of the closest hospital. His boss’s daughter, Samantha, heir to a publishing empire, has been injured and he’s been conscripted to help her reach the coast, to board a ferry to uninfected America. Irritated at this interruption to his goal of shooting a live creature and selling it to the magazine’s front page, Kaulder grudgingly accompanies Sam to the port. But the ferries from Mexico to the U.S. are few and far between, and passage is expensive. The monopolistic tour guide demands $5,000 for a single ticket, but that does come with a free gas mask to protect travelers from… well, it varies, some say the animals’ toxic breath and/or blood, others blame military chemical weapons. Either way, it’s a good idea to have one on hand.

Kaulder and Sam spend the evening in the village celebrating her departure with booze and dancing before observing a haunting firelight vigil for the seemingly thousands of people killed since the creatures’ arrival. After a series of almost-predictable events, including Kaulder seeking out a new bedmate after Sam spurns his drunken advances, they are robbed of their passports and miss the final ferry—the port is now closed due to migration and mating season. Forced to make their way over ground through the Infected Zone, Sam and Kaulder are placed in the hands of increasingly dangerous and seedy guides, including an armed gang of soldiers of fortune, all too aware that the danger could come from above them in the trees, beneath the water below the boats or at the hands of their all-too human opportunists.

Critically lauded for its invention in the face of a miniscule budget, Monsters is a simple little story as frustrating as it is suspenseful. Director Edwards’ motives are pure, wanting only to depict the resilience of the human spirit, while painting unsubtle metaphors—intentional or not—for everything from illegal immigration—the aliens have settled in Central Mexico but are making their way north towards “the Wall”—to our occupation of Afganistan. With a budget of less than $500,000, Edwards and his tiny crew shot the film over the course of a few weeks, often shooting in locations without permission. After principal photography wrapped, Edwards set out to generate the CGI creatures and wreckage with store-bought software, so the fact that the aliens are relegated to extended cameos can be not only understood but forgiven, particularly given how gorgeously-conceived and rendered the animals are: all floating, seeking tentacles and their internal bodies communicating with each other in flashes of brilliant colored light. The film’s climax—where virtually nothing happens but our observing the creatures up close for the first time right alongside the leads—is nothing short of breathtaking.

But the frustrating part lies squarely on the shoulders of the two leads. Due to the constraints of the budget and schedule, Edwards left story and dialogue largely up to his actors, in particular Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, which results in very little. Literally given nothing to do but travel, McNairy bitches and whines while the injured Able broods about a dissolving engagement and a damaged relationship with her father. The pair never really converse but make uncomfortable small talk throughout their journey—which is not only fine and acceptable and natural at the beginning, but becomes agonizing to sit through after the forty-five minute mark. Our leads have nothing to say and their model-frozen features convey even less. Their inevitable romance seems born out of boredom than shared adventure. While their journey would be fraught with danger even without the presence of the creatures, the fact that these enormous but nearly-silent attackers could be lurking camouflaged anywhere around them just adds to the tension parfait. And it’s been made apparent that even after six years, little attempt to understand the creatures has been made. They’re things for soldiers to fight or civilians to work around. “This happens every year,” a driver says, indicating the impending migration. “You just get used to it.”

Meanwhile, fully aware of their situation, the best improv our actors can conjure are meaningless and often head-slapping queries. A distant trumpeting sound, simultaneously ominous and beautiful, sending a tremor through the trees. Kaulder: “What is that? Seriously, what’s that sound?” When leaving one boat journey for the next leg of their trip, meeting their armed escorts who appear to have just dropped Indiana Jones off with the Hovitos, Kaulder: “Why do they have guns? Seriously, what do they need guns for?” Because, apparently, it’s easy to forget that 100-foot squids are lurking all around you. Meanwhile, Sam offers little input, preferring to smile enigmatically, sometimes grimly, always stoically, at the doom-filled situation. Upon seeing “The Wall” for the first time, constructed along the boarder—an awesomely-visualized shot from the steps of an Aztec temple—towering above both countries like a Republican’s greatest dream, Sam: “It’s like the eighth wonder of the world. Or something.”

Walking through an enormous burned-out hole in the side of the wall and encountering hastily-constructed signs pointing towards Quarantine, devastation around them with nary a soul to encounter, Kaulder: “What happened? Where is everybody?”

The banal discussion adds nothing to the already-long journey, every bit as exhausting for the viewer as the travelers, with the giant squids omnipresent Col. Kurtzes, and the actors do little to make their characters interesting enough to care about. Plucked from a mumblecore film, McNairy and Able are bland everymen, doing the fascinating premise a severe disservice. Edwards could have taken a page from Jacques Tati and kept the film dialogue-free and our sympathies would have undoubtedly increased. With Kaulder and Sam as our focal points, Monsters is like listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as read by Fran Drescher, wonderful and grating at the same time.

Unfortunately, its U.S. distributor Magnet Releasing seems to have found the attitude of our laconic leads to be the most enticing part of the film, since they dumped it onto a handful of screens with only a minimum of boring promotion—the poster’s tagline is “Beware” as if the studio itself wants the audience to stay away. If it weren’t for the strong word-of-mouth from those who caught it at South By Southwest, I don’t think I personally would be aware of it. 



If your mind’s eye is strong enough to paint the two out and focus merely on the passage from point to point, you’ll find Monsters to be quite the enjoyable experience. Far from the “worst, most boring movie ever”, as decreed by the mouthbreathers on the IMDb, Monsters is a contemplative, smart little science fiction movie because of what it shows and never tells. Since little is known or learned about the creatures, we’re not let in on anything either, so our wonder remains from beginning to (obvious) end. But we get majestic scenery along the way and are left wondering, “then what?” by the end—and in this case, it’s not such a bad thing.