Banal Murder and Common Beauty BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER Directed by John McNaughton TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR YOU Directed by Bertrand Blier y OU’RE good to talk to,” says Becky Michael know you’re not judgmental or anything like that.” Director and co-author John McNaughton might wish the same of his viewers. When Henry: Portrait ofa Serial Killer was screened at last September’s Telluride Film Festival, more than 10 percent of the audience stalked out in disgust. Though this low-budget slice of low life was completed in 1986, national release was delayed because of distribution disputes and because the Motion Picture Association of America was judgmental enough to assign it an X rating. McNaughton was unsuccessful in challenging the label, and independent Greycat Films is now distributing Henry: Portrait ofa Serial Killer without any rating but with the warning that the work is not intended or recommended for children under 17. What is most disturbing about Henry is its placid amorality. Henry holds a part-time job as a pest exterminator, but McNaughton’s film lacks the febrile carnage of The Exterminator. Even the affectless killers in River’s Edge and Drugstore Cowboy seem positively zestful in comparison with Henry, who methodically stalks, slashes, and slays women for no apparent reason except that they are there. From the opening shots of a nude and bloody corpse to the final image of an abandoned suitcase whose reddish stains betray human remains within, Henry impassively recounts a few days in the life of a lethal psychopath who takes no joy in his work. As Henry, Rooker, who plays a flashy NASCAR racer in Days of Thunder, lowers his key so far he could open a footlocker to embody the banality of evil here. None of his grisly murders brings any hint of catharsis to Steven Kelbnan is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. victim, killer, or viewer. “I got a new Visa card I wanna try out,” he tells Becky to explain why he is inviting her to a steak dinner. “Who do you think you’re associating with anyway?” It is a question that is never resolved, perhaps because, in tracking an elusive human identity, portraiture is inevitably caricature. McNaughton keeps us as detached from Henry, who is said to be inspired by Henry Lee Lucas, as Henry is from everyone else. Despite its title, the film is less a portrait than it is a series of powder burns from which we are asked to infer combustion and cause. A promiscuous mother who humiliated her son by clothing him in dresses and forcing him to witness her sexual escapades apparently made Henry into both a misogynist and a matricide. He claims to have murdered his mother on his 14th birthday, but the weapon was it a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat? changes with each calm recitation. Most often, the camera encounters Henry’s victims after they have had the life sliced out of them, with only a sound montage providing us access to the moments of horror themselves. When pick up a pair of streetwalkers, we do witness their liquidation, with an efficient snap of the necks, but we do so through a car’s rear window. The most appalling sequence in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer occurs when Henry and Otis invade a suburban household and murder the husband and teenage son while molesting the wife. McNaughton shows it all through the lens of a camcorder the men have stolen. Like sex, lies and videotape, much of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has the contradictory feel of immediacy and abstraction that seeing the world through a home VCR provides. It is as foolish to attack a TV screen as to smash a mirror if you do not like the image. When his television picture goes fuzzy, Otis smashes the set with his foot. “I guess I got carried away,” he explains, in a rare attack of eloquence. Otis attacks his sister Becky, who has fled to Chicago, without her daughter, after her husband was sent to prison for murder. “I never liked my daddy,” she tells Henry, after she moves into the apartment that Otis shares with Henry. From the age of 13, Becky had been sexually abused by her father. Though she has had no better luck with other men, pert and pretty Becky maintains her confidence that she will find a better job and a better man. She finds work in a beauty parlor and what seems to be love with Henry. Though love in Henry might be myopic, justice is not particularly blind; it is simply non-existent, whether of the poetic or legal sort. The closest thing to a policeman in this story of multiple brazen murders is the apathetic parole officer Otis visits once a month. Crime in Henry does not pay very generously, but neither does it get punished. One evening, Otis interrupts Henry and Becky after she has lured him into her bedroom. Confused, Henry flees outside to buy some cigarettes. “How ’bout those Bears?” asks the friendly store clerk, in an attempt at using sports to establish some of the few social bonds we have. “Fuck the Bears,” replies Henry. Beyond the F-word and the scorn for a Super Bowl champion, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer shocks with the recognition that people walk this world who refuse to be of it. I’M NOT CRAZY!” shouts Bernard a BMW dealer, into the phone at an obnoxious customer. Yet events in Trop Belle Pour Toi soon provide reason to doubt the accuracy of this initial autodiagnosis. Writer-director Bertrand Blier has created a perverse inversion of She-Devil, in which we are asked to imagine a sane man willingly jilting Meryl Streep for Roseanne Barr. Only a herpetologist would choose a frog over a princess. Bernard has been married for 14 years to regal, fine-boned beauty that Bernard’s male friends are consumed by envy. The couple lives in an exquisitely elegant antique house with two lovely, intelligent children. However, Bernard is willing to sacrifice it all for a supremely ordinary woman, a temporary who shows up at his office while he is affirming his lucidity into the telephone. During the course of atorrid affair, Colette demonstrates certain sexual talents, but why does Bernard, within days of hiring her, give her the opportunity in the first place? “What’s so special about her?” asks Florence, and the viewer has a right to wonder, too. “You’re common and ugly,” exclaims Florence to Colette during one of several ugly confrontations throughout the film. The description is a bit mean, but, certainly in contrast to 22 JULY 13, 1990
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