In Soviet Union, Bad Movie Watches You
From 1978 to 1990, Andrei Chikatilo murdered at least 52 women and children in Soviet Russia. Putting aside the grim fact that it’s fiendishly difficult to capture a serial killer under any circumstances, Chikatilo enjoyed a unique advantage. It was widely believed in Soviet circles that murder in general, and serial murder in particular, was a uniquely Western phenomenon that couldn’t possibly occur in the USSR. Blinded by ideology, investigators instead persecuted innocent homosexuals, believing homosexuality to be a dangerous mental illness. Good thing nothing like that ever happens here.
In 1995, HBO released the made-for-cable film Citizen x, a smart and compelling examination of Chikatilo’s crimes and the reasons why his spree lasted so long. It’s largely forgotten now, but it’s well worth digging up. Now we have Child 44, a film about a killer like Chikatilo. It should have stayed buried.
Based on a pretty darn good novel by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 introduces us to Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), an agent for the secret police. He and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) live in an expansive Moscow apartment, and Demidov spends his days tracking down traitors and dissidents. Understand that, in Soviet Russia, the concept of treason was hilariously vague. So much so that citizens could be taken away for interrogation, torture, and worse, based on nothing more than a neighbor discreetly informing upon them. Unlike his fellow officer and nemesis Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), Leo is a hulking brute with hidden depths of decency. He tries to do the right thing, which enrages Vasili to no end. But when the shadow of suspicion falls on Raisa, Leo must decide whether to stand by his wife or his government.
Meanwhile, a murderer is preying on young boys alongside the country’s railroad tracks. Since murder doesn’t officially exist in the USSR, the authorities initially either pin the deaths on scapegoats or designate them as “accidents.” After Leo and Raisa are banished to a grimy factory town, they team up with General Nesterov to investigate the killings.
On it’s own, the idea of a thriller about a serial killer rampaging through a totalitarian dictatorship is a good one. Child 44 dutifully covers many of the touchstones of the genre. You have the pensive detective getting closer to the truth, the superior officer who initially doesn’t believe him. You even have the murderer saying the line, “We’re both killers, you and I.” I laughed at that line, having only heard it in 13,000 other films. But interspersed is lots and lots and lots of time spent showing people being informed upon and the state trying to enforce the blind obedience of its citizens. There’s also a considerable chunk of time spent on Leo and Raisa’s shaky marriage.
Weirdly, it almost feels like director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price decided they didn’t like the A plot of the serial killer after they already started making the film. The film should cleanly tie together the stuff with the killer, the Soviet paranoia and the emotional beats to create a piece that feels organic and real. Instead, the tone and pacing awkwardly lurches back and forth. I’m particularly thrown by the script, since Richard Price is a damn fine writer*. But it’s clearly a first draft that needed a ton of tightening up.
The cast does…mixed work, shall we say. If Leo sounds like a typical role for Tom Hardy…well, it is. He’s an incredibly talented actor, and he does what he can playing a conflicted and determined investigator with a Borscht-thick accent. He’s better than the material, but at least we get him again next month in the absolutely bonkers Mad Max: Fury Road. Rapace is fine, despite the lack of chemistry between her and Hardy. Kinnaman’s Vasili is portrayed as so overtly villainous, I desperately hoped he’d at some point wear a shirt reading, “I am evil.” It disappoints me that didn’t happen. Old war horse Gary Oldman was good as usual, and I treasure scenes of him screaming in Hardy’s face.
The novel Child 44 is the first in a trilogy, but due to the film’s incompetence, we shouldn’t expect to have any sequels inflicted upon us. It’ll be gone from theaters in a few weeks when Avengers: Age of Ultron makes all the money. Child 44 will end up as a bargain-bin blu-ray that nobody buys and nobody cares about. Like Soviet Russia, this film belongs on the trash heap of history.
*Read Clockers as soon as humanly possible. It’s smart, sympathetic and fascinating.