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Cover Story: The Killer(s) Inside

From cable TV to film, 2007's killers spread the sickness

By tt stern-enzi · December 19th, 2007 · Cover Story
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

In 1952, Jim Thompson made his name with The Killer Inside Me, a crime thriller about small-town Texas deputy Lou Ford. At 29, Ford lorded over the community with easygoing, good-old-boy charm while never carrying a gun. Not that he needed one, though, because (as he constantly reminds us during the narrative) Ford has "the sickness."

Ford is a killer, a mean and thoroughly calculating man who cannot control his darker impulses, urges that ultimately do him in.

Over the course of six somewhat long-gestating seasons, HBO introduced a new spin of the Mafioso. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), an on-the-verge head of the New Jersey mob with much blood on his hands and much more to be spilled, starts dreaming and obsessing over the geese in his backyard pool. After a couple of blackouts, Tony lands on the couch of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) ... and small-screen killers haven't been the same since.

In between sessions, Tony strangled a snitch while on a college tour with his daughter, put a few rounds in his best friend and lobbed the body off his boat and snuffed the life out of his nephew after the two scrambled to survive a car accident to cap off the final season.

The end of The Sopranos doesn't necessarily spell the end for conflicted killers. HBO's string continues on The Wire, which splatters its novelistic canvas with the brutal reality of the streets and bureaucratic corruption in city hall and the police department.

The show balances Snoop (Felicia Pearson), the cold-blooded femme gang-banger buying nail-guns to board up the rising body count inside abandoned row-houses, alongside Omar (Michael K.

Williams), a no-cussin', Robin Hood-styled hoodlum who happens to be gay. While neither Snoop nor Omar would cop to the notion of having "the sickness," society would certainly categorize their actions as symptoms of a chronic social illness.

Not to be outdone, Showtime returned fire with the second season of its runaway hit Dexter about a forensic specialist who happens to be a serial killer (shades of Lou Ford in the age of CSI). Jeff Lindsay's novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter provides the basis of the show.

Beyond the world of premium cable networks, The Shield provides yet another example of the diseased state of society with its ruthless cop anti-hero trying to stay one step ahead of the long-range gun-sight aimed at the back of his skull that the casual viewer might see as either an outright cure or a mercy killing.

This year on film, several terminal cases confounded audiences seeking to understand the conditions that could create such plagues.

Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford casts the early rise of the media's fascination with killers in high relief. During his own lifetime, Jesse James had already achieved mythic status as a celebrity outlaw, so much so that the cult of personality that sprang up around him ended up including Robert Ford, the very man who would take his life and guarantee him even greater infamy. But the sad truth for the creepy Ford (uncomfortably rendered by Casey Affleck in a career-defining turn) is that such fame was denied him. It doesn't pay to be the even more diseased killer of a sick killer.

David Cronenberg followed up his A History of Violence, which offered a glimpse at a reformed killer trying to escape his murderous past only to have it repeat itself, with Eastern Promises, yet another life or death dance with Viggo Mortensen in the lead. This time, Mortensen burrows into the persona of a rising star in the Russian mob caught between defending the life of a midwife (Naomi Watt) and executing orders to dispatch family enemies.

With an obviously strong body adorned with tattoos to mark his efforts, Mortensen's character isn't sick, in the clinical sense, but he bears a secret that flows in him like a virus that cannot be excised.

In The Brave One, Jodie Foster gets infected after a violent assault takes the life of her fiance and wounds her spirit. From the terms of cinematic reference, she is reminiscent of Charles Bronson's vigilante in Death Wish, although director Neil Jordan attempts to explore the resultant urge for vengeance and seeks to diagnose it as a symptom of an ailment similar to Ford's. Interestingly, however, these illnesses create a heightened sense of wellness, a physical energy that initially inspires the host before breaking down their systems.

Each of these examples posits the characters as being infected or suffering to varying degrees from a "sickness." But in No Country for Old Men, the ultimate killer is quite literally a plague. A fellow hired gun named Wells (Woody Harrelson) compares Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to "the bubonic plague." It doesn't hurt that up to this point audiences have watched Chigurh, with his odd, bowl-cut hair, leave in his wake a trail of bodies across the Lone Star state, and we all know how big Texas is.

Chigurh recalls the rage virus of 28 Weeks Later that gives birth to an uncontrolled undead population or the man-made biological strain produced in I Am Legend that wipes out more than 90 percent of humanity only to replace us with vampire-like spawn. Except with Chigurh, no life at all remains.

What makes Chigurh different? He is the embodiment of not a sick man but of the sickness itself, the inevitability of its spread, the certainty of its ringing finality. The title No Country For Old Men, for all its Old Testament prophetic intonations, is at its core a supreme understatement. This landscape has no place for men, women or children, young or old.

And if 2007 has shown us nothing else, it has made this point plain and clear. Killers are no longer sick; they, and by extension we, are the sickness.

Let's see if 2008 offers a cure or new, deadlier mutations.



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