Violence and psychopathy are meant to be married. The labels “serial killer”, “murderer”, and “psycho” immediately conjure up the images of grotesque lunatics with (often literally) an axe to grind. Horror and exploitation movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre covered this beautifully – showing every bone, every hair, every flap of skin; concluding with a man in a mask dancing around with a rusty chainsaw. Torture Porn and Splatter Films entered the 21st century with a franchise interest for drowning the screen in blood and guts – as in the Saw franchise, which in its (as of last year) eight installations developed many ludicrous ways of a psycho ripping people, and their bodies, apart.
But in recent psycho-dramas, such a gory attitude to constructing serial killers isn’t such a common tact. Like the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, filmmakers appear to be panning away from extreme violence and focusing on the killers as people instead of monsters. There have been movie-psychos to sympathise with in the past: think of Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or the voyeuristic Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (for which director Michael Powell’s career was cut brutally short). But the tendency, and the fun, is in alienating these people instead of getting to know them. And in the past 12 months, we haven’t seen psychos and serial killers in quite this vein.
In Lynne Ramsay’s latest film You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe – a hammer-wielding, moral psychotic (possessing similar principles to Travis Bickle) working as a hitman. He is hired to rescue a politician’s pre-teen daughter from a brothel for paedophiles. The violence is indeed rife in the film, but not seen in explicit detail. During a chilling CCTV sequence, Ramsay cleverly cuts to Joe’s victims just after he’s brutally maimed them. But why? Why don’t we see their crushed skulls? Why aren’t we being allowed to relish in fake blood as it sprays and squirts everywhere in nauseating quantities? Perhaps Joe doesn’t actually like what he does, but needs to do it – and so his brain blocks out the killings. But I think it’s for another reason: Empathy.
I hope it’s true that you, dear Reader, relate more to a person if you haven’t seen them commit a brutal murder. We’re not meant to feel sad for Leatherface, who probably had an upsetting childhood, growing up with his frightfully disturbing family – he’s just a lethal tool, functioning for our scared amusement. In movies, blood is fun. But an absence of blood reaches something deeper, and can make us feel even more uncomfortable. Without showing what Joe does, we’re able to connect more to him as a character instead of a bloody Cinema of Attractions. Of course, there is still more violence in the film than, say, a Richard Curtis romcom, but it’s little compared to films in the same genre. In his review of You Were Never Really Here, Empire critic Ian Freer said that the violent sequences “often upsettingly begin just after the blood has been spilt … but [they’re] equally visceral and comforting”. Freer is exactly right, and other recent psycho-dramas have successfully attempted to do the same.
My Friend Dahmer follows the adolescent years of notorious American serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, raped, and dismembered 17 people between ’78 and ’91. Not one of these murders is shown – not even his first murder of Steven Hicks, the prologue to which concludes the film. Instead, we are given plenty of little precognitions. He stores roadkill in jars of acid. He cuts open a fish to see what its insides look like. And he lifts weights bought by his father, later used to kill Hicks (again, not seen in the film).
Writer-director Marc Meyers adapted My Friend Dahmer from the graphic novel-memoir by John Backderf, who befriended Dahmer in high school and enjoyed his abnormalities. In fact, the film treats Dahmer’s strange activities – like pretending to be spastic to amuse groups of people – as no weirder than those by other students. Backderf and his friends “spaz out” with him, and think it’s hilarious. Although we see Dahmer’s differences, we also realise his unsettling similarities. We empathize, and even sympathize, with his stress and loneliness. We relate to a future serial killer, and that may be the most frightening thing of all.
In recent dramas where the psycho isn’t the centre of attention, like the Jersey-set mystery-thriller Beast or the gloriously paced Netflix series Mindhunter, the empathy is also abnormally heavy. In Mindhunter especially, we sit with these killers, examine how they think and why they act – moving through the backstories of humans rather than the origins of villains. You feel sorry for each killer, even if they are partial to strangulations and wanking over women’s shoes. There’s something human inside all of them.
We’re so accustomed to the Monster Image in our lives that we’re not often interested in knowing the person under the shell. For, after all, these killers are still people – and these writers and directors have approached psychopaths with a humanism rarely seen before. They’re all commendable efforts. Then again, are we only empathising with these madmen because we’ve been (mostly) shielded away from the blood and the guts? Are we being given a falsely sympathetic view of the psycho-killer? We might know by the time Lars von Trier releases his latest film The House That Jack Built, which promises to be an art-house blood-fest. Will we care for Jack in the same way we do Joe, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Edmund Kemper? Or will all the blood, inevitably splashed in every direction, remove our empathy all together?