Hu­mour, vi­o­lence and irony com­bine in the lat­est se­rial-killer drama to grace our screens

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

THE se­rial killer has been with us on the small screen at least since Twin Peaks in 1990, but re­cently we’ve seen dozens of in­ves­ti­ga­tions launched. Crim­i­nal Minds alone, with its moody team of mind-hunt­ing pro­fil­ers from the FBI’s Be­havioural Anal­y­sis Unit, has graph­i­cally pro­filed more than 100 sig­na­ture mur­der­ers across its 13 sea­sons.

The just-fin­ished Dex­ter, in satiris­ing the myth of the vig­i­lante avenger with a cool and hu­mor­ous non­cha­lance sim­i­lar to the way its hero dis­patched his vic­tims, fea­tured a grue­some kill list of at least 125. Last year seven new shows about se­rial psy­chopaths aired, para­dox­i­cally in the wake of mass killings at Sandy Hook el­e­men­tary school, a movie theatre in Colorado and the Bos­ton Marathon.

Among them are Kevin Ba­con’s rather lit­er­ary The Fol­low­ing; Bates Mo­tel, a mod­ern-day pre­quel to Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Psy­cho; and Han­ni­bal, the NBC se­ries based on Thomas Har­ris’s char­ac­ter Han­ni­bal Lecter. Har­ris has a lot to an­swer for, the genre, de­spite a ven­er­a­ble his­tory, ex­plod­ing with his Lecter nov­els, es­pe­cially The Si­lence of the Lambs in the late 1980s. His well-writ­ten nov­els cre­ated a new fas­ci­na­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture with these gothic mon­sters, and with the pro­fil­ers who pur­sue them.

While this crowded genre is now get­ting a bit cod­i­fied and de­riv­a­tive, it seems we need even more de­ranged se­rial-killing psy­chos on our screens, who seem­ingly tar­get ran­dom people and have an odd and al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble method to their mad­ness.

The lat­est is Seven’s tele­movie The Killing Field, cre­ated and writ­ten by Sarah Smith and Michae­ley O’Brien, and di­rected by the ac­com­plished Samantha Lang ( The Mon­key’s Mask). It was pro­duced in-house by Seven with the vet­eran Bill Hughes and Smith act­ing as pro­duc­ers and Seven’s head of drama Julie McGau­ran as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

It starts with a state­ment — “Not all se­rial killers have high IQs, but if you spend a lot of time do­ing some­thing, you get re­ally good at it” — that al­most sets us up for a lit­tle Coen broth­ers-style mis­chief, that dis­tinc­tive mix of wry hu­mour, ec­cen­tric­ity, vi­o­lence and irony. (I am, like many of you, al­ready cap­ti­vated by the TV reimag­in­ing of their movie Fargo, show­ing on SBS, a mes­meris­ing 10-part prairie noir tale of an­other group of good Min­nesota folks driven blood sim­ple by rage and stu­pid­ity.)

Un­for­tu­nately there’s lit­tle wit on show in this tele­movie, which, de­spite some gor­geous cin­e­matic flour­ishes, is a bit short on nar­ra­tive tech­nique and am­bi­gu­i­ties of char­ac­ter. There’s a slick com­pe­tence about it — vivid small-town iconog­ra­phy from di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Toby Oliver and a su­perb score from Basil Ho­gios and Caitlin Yeo — but Lang is let down by a script that takes too long to find trac­tion.

Un­like the re­cent, not en­tirely dis­sim­i­lar, Broad­church, the ab­sorb­ing Bri­tish thriller from Chris Chib­nall, part po­lice pro­ce­dural and part psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­plo­ration of loss and the ter­ri­ble de­mands of grief, it lacks enough mur­dermys­tery en­gine to drive the story for­ward, buy­ing us space to ex­plore the emo­tional side.

In the small coun­try town of Min­gara a pretty teenage girl goes miss­ing af­ter a ri­otous party, and po­lice and res­i­dents be­gin a large-scale oper­a­tion to find her. But as they painstak­ingly search the wheat fields and dusty roads, five dead bod­ies are dis­cov­ered in a field, shal­lowly buried in the red dirt.

Pos­si­bly en­twined, the two cases are too com­plex for the lo­cal con­stab­u­lary, and as fear set­tles on the town­ship, a spe­cialised hand­picked team of homi­cide de­tec­tives is flown in from the city. They’re led by De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Lach­lan McKen­zie (Peter O’Brien), in­sou­ciant, mea­sured and me­thod­i­cal, and his for­mer lover, the em­pa­thetic De­tec­tive Sergeant Eve Win­ter (Re­becca Gib­ney), who af­ter burn­ing out af­ter too many bru­tal cases has been work­ing a desk.

Af­ter a pleas­ing if dis­qui­et­ing cin­e­matic be­gin­ning, Lang’s nar­ra­tive stalls as the task­force re­con­noitres the town in an at­tempt to es­tab­lish con­text for the crimes, a sus­pect on ev­ery foot­path, though the killer seems too smart to be lo­cal. The of­fi­cers hardly seem par­tic­u­larly ex­pe­ri­enced, there’s a lot of that white board act­ing, which seems to hap­pen in ev­ery se­rial killer movie, and it all takes too long to build up mo­men­tum. Far too late for this viewer, af­ter 28 min­utes a ma­jor plot turn breaks the te­dium.

The di­a­logue is a touch per­func­tory too, just do­ing a job, not crisp, thorny and abrupt like real con­ver­sa­tion. The good writ­ers of this kind of fic­tion (think of Chib­nall again, or The Killing’s Soren Sveistrup, or Line of Duty’s Jed Mer­cu­rio) are good at re­veal­ing in­for­ma­tion while slyly de­tract­ing at­ten­tion from it, or tuck­ing it away in a mo­ment, be­fore demon­strat­ing its greater sig­nif­i­cance. Here it’s a lit­tle drea­rily du­ti­ful and ex­pos­i­tory, even for a tele­movie, too slowly just mov­ing us along.

Good thrillers should hit the ground run­ning and never al­low you a breath. They ask a ques­tion right at the be­gin­ning and an­swer it at the end, ac­cord­ing to best­selling nov­el­ist Lee Child, who also once worked as a TV writer. We are hard­wired to want an­swers to ques­tions — the rea­son cliffhang­ers abound be­fore and af­ter commercial breaks af­ter all — and The Killing Field just doesn’t ask enough. One that it does — will Win­ter get it off with McKen­zie af­ter the 10-year hia­tus? — is nei­ther here nor there. We just don’t care enough.

O’Brien’s McKen­zie is too pas­sive as a fig­ure — he’s hardly a pro­tag­o­nist — and seems a tad louche, hand­some in a care­fully dis­si­pated kind of way; maybe it’s just O’Brien’s al­ways oddly slip­pery look.

He’s an ac­com­plished per­former, of course, and here it is solid, un­tricky act­ing, squeez­ing all the juice out of a part that doesn’t of­fer a great deal of sub­text.

On the page Gib­ney’s Win­ter may ap­pear a lit­tle rem­i­nis­cent of that great Bri­tish de­tec­tive DCI Jane Ten­ni­son, played so con­vinc­ingly by He­len Mir­ren, from Lynda La Plante’s Prime Sus­pect, a woman per­son­i­fy­ing the flawed, lonely, fa­tigued, painfully heroic char­ac­ter once only the prov­ince of men. Ten­ni­son’s in­creas­ing isolation through the 15 years of this su­perb drama was the re­sult of her hav­ing to forgo a great deal of what a male de­tec­tive might take for granted and, fac­ing re­tire­ment in the fi­nal sea­son, hers was a com­pellingly melan­cholic view of the world.

Win­ter, though, as played by Gib­ney — tight-lipped, the tini­est of smiles, wary and a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive — is by com­par­i­son a char­ac­ter who holds limited ap­peal, para­dox­i­cal re­ally for some­one so skilled, we’re told, at un­der­stand­ing an­other per­son’s con­di­tion from their per­spec­tive. The failed re­la­tion­ship with McKen­zie is of as lit­tle in­ter­est as is his un­likely at­tempts to res­ur­rect it.

Gib­ney at times has been bril­liant in a long ca­reer but of­ten she has been forced to man­age some thin ma­te­rial with what has be­come her trade­mark steely pre­ci­sion. She was ter­rific as the con­ser­va­tive and su­per­sti­tious Maria Korp in the fine tele­movie Wicked Love a few years back. Her ac­torly fas­tid­i­ous­ness was re­placed with vul­ner­a­bil­ity and a slight tremu­lous­ness, al­though she main­tained an acute con­trol over the shape of ev­ery line and move­ment. As she al­ways does.

I think that maybe we’ve been a lit­tle spoiled by the Nordic noir in­va­sion as much as by the HBO-in­flu­enced dra­mas such as Break­ing Bad, True De­tec­tive and now the rip­ping Fargo. Their cre­ators have a talent for ma­nip­u­lat­ing our as­sump­tions that amounts to dev­ilry. But they also cre­ate char­ac­ters with a dread­ful plau­si­bil­ity about them that en­gulfs you in their un­tidy lives, leav­ing you at the end of each episode, as that fa­mil­iar fi­nale mu­sic rises, feel­ing mildly trau­ma­tised.

In them, the eye is drawn to the ac­tion, which is so skil­fully di­rected and chore­ographed that you are vis­cer­ally drawn into their tightly writ­ten nar­ra­tives. The Killing Field, for all its prom­ise, fails to deliver but there are still some en­tranc­ingly gothic mo­ments from di­rec­tor Lang, in­clud­ing an end that’s straight out of Edgar Al­lan Poe.

The Killing Field, Sun­day, 8.40pm, Seven

May 3-4, 2014

Re­becca Gib­ney

and Peter O’Brien in The

Killing Field

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