I haven’t tackled any dark dramas in the five-plus months I’ve been doing a daily movie review for my blog. However, I’ll break out of that today with the outstanding but little-remembered made-for-TV movie “Citizen X.” It’s about the most notorious serial killer from the former Soviet Union and he was unwittingly abetted by Communist ideology. It is a remarkable film with outstanding performances, but the cast drops off as many are Eastern Europeans whose names are not familiar to U.S. audiences.
(1995; 105 minutes; rated R; directed by Chris Gerlomo and starring Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland and Max von Sydow)
FIGHTING CRIME … AND BUREAUCRACY
One of the most prolific serial killers operated for years in the Soviet Union, partially shielded by Communist officials. They chose to deny imperfection in their perfect society and let ideology trump facts and the outcome was a nightmarish danger to the public when simply doing the right thing to catch a killer would have saved lives. In telling the story in “Citizen X,” you will find this an horrific tale but also see two supremely talented actors doing some of their best work.
The acting spotlight shines on Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland here as two of the few officials who have no other agenda than to bring a murderer to justice. “Citizen X” is a very dark drama with disturbing images of violence to young people, especially children. However it is totally in context of the film and not gratuitous and while somewhat gory it doesn’t take it beyond the pale.
In “Citizen X” authorities in Rostov (an ancient lakeside city northeast of Moscow) find one body of a murdered youngster and then a deluge begins as other bodies are uncovered. A forensic expert (Rea as “Lt. Viktor Burakov”) is promoted to detective and begins an odyssey that lasts nearly a decade as he tracks the killer.
Rea quickly comes to the conclusion that the killer (“Andrei Chikatilo” played to creepy perfection by Jeffrey DeMunn) finding his victims through the region’s commuter railway system. With personal transportation nonexistent for individual Russians of the era (the killings occurred between 1978 and 1990), the trains were always flooded with travelers, even youngsters traveling alone. However he stays free partially because of the Soviet ideology that Communism could not breed such an individual and that only sick capitalist systems like the United States can produce such criminals. So Rea is hamstrung by ideology, lesser technology (which the Soviets also will not acknowledge) and political infighting that prevents him from seeking advice from the experienced FBI behavioral unit that pioneered profiling of serial killers.
At one point Rea is thwarted when his investigation has its direction changed to rousting homosexuals. After a maddening battle through bureaucracy, aided by Sutherland (“Col. Mikhail Fetisov”), the investigation gets back on track and is aided by a psychiatrist – an unheard of use of a psychiatrist in the Soviet Union. The psychiatrist calls the unknown killer “Citizen X.”
Rea finally gets back to questioning DeMunn, who had been freed earlier because he was a member in good standing in the Communist Party, and with the help of the psychiatrist cracks the case. His methods and straightforward work earn praise from the toughest audience: the families of the more than 50 victims.
The most chilling scene in “Citizen X” is at the end as DeMunn is led into an empty room with a tiled floor with a drain. He is told not to look back as the officer pulls out his pistol. Prisoners convicted of murder didn’t last long in Russia and although it wasn’t shown in “Citizen X,” several other suspects in the murders that were caught earlier were quickly executed but later found to be innocent.
It’s difficult to judge which actor is better: Rea or Sutherland.
Sutherland, who won a Golden Globe for his effort in “Citizen X,” is pitch perfect as the militia commander who has to work the labyrinth of bureaucracy and the political realities of the Soviet Union throughout the investigation. He is wonderfully aloof and distant most times as he projects the façade his position requires, but he does also show a human side and is the reason the investigation can get to the point of identifying the killer. Sutherland was also in “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review) as well as the “MASH” movie (that’s the title; the asterisks were added on movie posters) as the original “Hawkeye Pierce.”
Rea is also flawless as the dogged and usually exhausted forensics expert turned detective. He has the “I’m doomed” hangdog look of middle-level bureaucrats everywhere in the Soviet Union of the time. He is continually caught between a rock and a hard place by having to deal with being ignored and seeing his investigation turned into a joke to appease political sensibilities. Although Rea was nominated for an Oscar for “The Crying Game,” I believe he does a much better job here. Rea was nearly as good playing a similar-styled cop in “V for Vendetta.”
Both are performances you shouldn’t miss if you enjoy the actors’ work.
Not far behind is DeMunn as the serial killer. He projects the lonely, depressed and psychotic behavior of his character as if he was teaching a class on how to act like a deranged serial killer (watch this one Christian Bale and you would have gotten some tips for “American Psycho”). DeMunn, who was nominated for an Emmy for “Citizen X,” has played a number of eclectic characters in his career of five decades including “The Green Mile” and as a right-wing conspirator in “Betrayed.”
Max von Sydow plays “Dr. Alexandr Bukhanovsky,” who is the psychiatrist who gives a profile of the killer to aid the authorities. It is a common technique in the U.S., but this as a first in the former Soviet Union. Von Sydow is quiet and intellectually curious as his character demands and he is so smooth that you marvel at his talent. Von Sydow was a great killer in “Three Days of the Condor” with Robert Redford (click here for my review) as was also in “Brass Target,” a film that espouses that U.S. Gen. George Patton was murdered after World War II ended (and didn’t die from injuries in a crash).
You’d swear Joss Ackland came right from a Moscow sound stage to play the overbearing and menacing Communist ideologue “Bondarchuk,” but you’d be wrong. Ackland is described on IMDb.com as a “distinguished English actor” and he has acting credits stretching back to 1949. As the imperious official, Ackland is in the right company of actors to give a perfect performance. He also does a nice job when confronted with the fact that he’s keeping a young man in an apartment in another city while overseeing the oppression of homosexuals in Rostov. Ackland has also been in “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Mighty Ducks” and “Lethal Weapon 2.”
Since “Citizen X” is a made-for-TV film released first on HBO, it of course doesn’t rank at the U.S. box office in 1995. For the record, “Toy Story” was the top-ranked film at the box office that year with $191.7 million, according to Box Office Mojo. My other favorite in the top 10 was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” with $172 million (good for third place).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Imelda Staunton is another British actor who does a good job here as a Russian. She plays the Rea’s wife and does a good job conveying the drab existence of Russian home life, especially by someone with strength and character. Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for “Vera Drake” and has also been in “Maleficent.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “A subtle and clever device to mark time is employed by a succession of wall photographs depicting current premiers from Brezhnev to Gorbachev.” My note: it was a wall poster extolling Communism and it weathered and was ripped over time throughout the film just as Communism eroded and fell. Rea walked past it to and from work.
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