FIELDS OF BLOOD
Humour, violence and irony combine in the latest serial-killer drama to grace our screens
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
and Peter O’Brien in The