Monday, August 21, 2023

Murder On the Soviet Express

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not a true crime person. There's something seedy about reveling in the intrigue of something that has real-life victims, and as an unabashed horror fan, I find it uncomfortably blurs lines that I've spent my life defending. 

That being said, 1995's Citizen X intrigued me: a made-for-HBO movie in its early days of original programming following the real-life case of a prolific Soviet serial killer and equipped with a ridiculously good cast.

Quick Plot: It's 1982 in the Soviet Union, and new forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) has a rough night (and subsequent 8 years) ahead of him. A corpse found in the nearby woods arrives right at closing time, but as Viktor insists the police go deeper in their search, he can't complain when they discover another handful of victims, abused and murdered according to a pattern.

Before he can shower, Viktor is summoned to an early morning council of Soviet officials allergic to hearing words like "serial killer" or "FBI." This is bureaucracy at its tightest, and the best Viktor can hope for in his investigation is for the careful, deceptively ambivalent machinations of his superior Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) to pay off. 

Viktor is a passionate, caring man who sees the problems in front of him and can't understand why the system won't bend. Fetisov has spent his whole career playing the game, gathering intel quietly and never rocking the boat publicly. In its own way, it's a marriage made in heaven.

But there's a lot of hell in between. 

The identity of the killer isn't hidden from the audience. We meet unhappy factory worker Andrei Chikatilo (familiar face Jeffrey DeMunn) early on and see his pattern as Viktor pieces it out: hang around the train stations on the outskirts of Moscow until a target appears. The victims are either children, sex workers, vagrants, or young adults that can't necessarily fend for themselves. 

Viktor nails Chikatilo's routine down so well that he actually captures the man, only for his superiors to scoff at the idea that a respected, heterosexual member of the communist party could do such a thing. Faulty bloodwork leads to Chikatilo's release, and the hunt continues for another few years, along with additional victims.

Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X is an incredibly watchable product of its time. Today, this would be the first season of a limited anthology series vying for Emmys against a dozen similar products. But in 1995, the gaggle of prestige actors trying out Russian accents is kind of charming in its own way.

There's actually a surprising amount of charm to be found in this story about a sadistic child killer. Gerolmo doesn't revel in Chikatilo's violence, instead showing the weight such crimes have on those who directly witness them. There's a rather noble sense of honor about Viktor's pursuit for justice, as well as how Fetisov watches the world around him with caution so that he can play his cards at just the right time and for the right result.

The only time Citizen X really slips into straight procedural is the ending, which suffers by moving closer to Chikatilo and further from Viktor and Fetisov. The abrupt coda feels off, especially since Citizen X seems so clear-minded about what it really wants to explore: this should be a story about how intelligent and more importantly, persistent investigating led to the capture of a monster, not so much a story about the monster.

High Points
There's such joy to be had when you get to watch good actors play off each other, and nowhere is that more true than when Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland get to develop their tentative teamwork from two wildly different backgrounds

Low Points
It's fun to see a young Imelda Staunton pop up as Viktor's dutiful wife, but like so many of these kinds of "men investigate things" stories, it's also a minor shame that she, as one of the few speaking women onscreen, exists in the story to remind him (and us) that he's a good man

Lessons Learned
If you want to get things done in a bureaucracy, you better know how to avoid making it look like you're getting anything done

Being a hero is enormously taxing

When in doubt, send in Max Von Sydow

I had a shockingly good time watching Citizen X, and this is coming from someone who generally backs away from these kinds of films. Have at it on whatever we're calling the HBO app these days.

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