By John H. Foote
(**) Streaming on Apple
Jared Leto has always been a sublimely gifted actor, from his early work in Fight Club (1999), his doomed drug addict in the electrifying masterpiece Requiem for a Dream (2000), through his role in Alexander (2004), to Lord of War (2005), right through to his Oscar win in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Imagine had Oliver Stone cast him as Alexander the Great instead of Colin Farrell, while casting Leto as his loyal friend and lover? Leto might have soared in the part. Stone would have had a masterpiece, an actor willing to take risks with the character. Leto was exquisite in Dallas Buyers Club, richly deserving of that Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which brought about his casting as the Joker in the critically lambasted Suicide Squad (2016). Going ridiculously method behind the scenes, very few actors had much good to say about him, and despite the success of the film, he was fired. Leto chose to be insanely self-indulgent, perhaps intimidated by the brilliance of Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in previous portrayals of the character. Yet he rises, with a startling dark performance here as Albert, the most likely suspect in a series of murders being investigated by two very different, yet excellent cops.
Leto gives the otherwise ordinary film a huge jolt of dark charismatic energy with his bizarre performance as a uniquely confident, vile, potential killer, constantly taunting the police.
The film, directed and written by John Lee Hancock, features a trio of Academy Award winners – Leto, Denzel Washington and more recent winner Rami Malek. The latter two are cops, trying to solve murders. Set in the 1990’s, in a very different Los Angeles, a fact driven home by the use of pay phones!
Deacon (Washington) is a lifelong cop, a homicide detective driven near mad and out of L.A. by a murder investigation, and his failure to find a serial killer terrorizing the area. Visiting the city, flashbacks take us back to the killings as Deacon is haunted by them everywhere he goes. Meeting his younger successor Jim Baxter (Malek), they initially annoy one another but forge a partnership based on solving this case and getting their man.
They focus the bulk of their investigation on Albert, a filthy, greasy haired creep, who would be anyone’s first choice as the killer. But pay attention, from frame one. Albert seems to love the attention, taunting the detectives, jeering at them in soft tones, his stare unwavering.
Baxter seems to allow the search to impact him as it once did Deacon, he obsesses. His family life suffers, investigations are bungled, evidence goes missing, and the younger cop begins to question his faith in his job. He seems to be learning for the first time that justice does not always prevail. Deacon has long known this, and though learning it nearly ruined him, he now understands. So he focuses as best he can on the details of the killings, the little things, aspects that could go missed.
What happens to detectives who invest their entire being to locating a killer they cannot find? The proverbial needle in the haystack is on display here, maddening as it might be. Or is the killer in plain sight? Is it indeed Albert, or is that too easy?
In many ways the film is a throwback to David Fischer’s Seven (1995), though less powerful and certainly less grisly and violent. The victims are young women – so little changes in the genre does it?
Washington is rock solid as Deacon, as we expect him to be – when is he anything less? But there is nothing new to his work, we have seen Deacon before. There is a nice connection between he and Baxter in that he watches his new friend going through the agonizing throes of what he experienced, helpless to break free of the obsession. Both men are modern day Ahab seeking that which obsesses them, though the killer here is no white whale, but a killer whose actions tortures their minds. Deacon remains haunted by the crimes, appalled he could not bring the families peace by finding the murderer, and being back in LA causes him to relive his sadness, granted with more cynicism.
Malek, so brilliant in HBO’s The Pacific (2010) though wildly over praised as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) for which he won an Oscar he did not deserve, is very good as Baxter. Following the path he knows that Deacon followed, he just cannot help himself, so great is his obsession.
In the end the film’s finest performance belongs to Leto, hypnotic as Albert. The prosthetic nose is distracting, masking Leto’s startling good looks, but we quickly get over it. A brilliant piece of acting, remember everything you hear and see about Albert. Ignore nothing.
After The Blind Side (2009) and the underrated Saving Mr. Banks (2013), such a dark, often cruel film may seem out of Hancock’s depth, and in fact it is. But if it were not so late to the game, it was written in the nineties, might it be better thought of. As of 2020, it is an average thriller, predictable if you are listening, bolstered by the fine performances, but greater serial killer films have been made before it.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.