Monday, December 10, 2007


Last year's London Film Festival brought us a pretty straightforward documentary that reminded us just how radical, important and charismatic John Lennon was. In a Festival full of films lamenting the lost soul of the United States, THE US VS. JOHN LENNON reminded us of the power of protest and good intentions.

This year, we get a documentary of an altogether different kind. Andrew Piddington has re-created the killing of John Lennon from the point of view of his assassin, Mark Chapman. The film isn't really interested in Lennon at all - he remains a shadowy figure -a plot device rather than a protagonist. This is as it should be. After all, Mark Chapman's selection of Lennon as his victim was, apparently, a matter of cruel chance rather than personal grudge. Accordingly, despite the movie's title, the subject of this film isn't John Lennon but Chapman's slide into murderous insanity.

In a series of impressionistic flash-backs and telling moments, we see Chapman three months before the assassination. The product of a broken home - living through a breaking marriage - he feels out of place and disenfranchised. He has a history of mental illness and a previous entanglement with Scientology. He's already off-kilter, but apparently still in touch with reality, when he picks up a copy of Catcher In The Rye and finds himself identifying with Holden Caulfield. By chance, he then picks up a book of photographs of John Lennon and, on the strength of Lennon's swanky New York co-op, condemns him as a "phoney".

Writer-director Andrew Piddington handles this part of the story with economy and visual flair. We are barely half an hour into the film when Chapman has purchased a gun with laughable ease and travelled to New York. Over the next half hour he stalks the Dakota building and the film reaches an unbearable pitch of nervous tension. The use of authentic locations and period costumes adds to the feeling of horrible reality that is rooted in Jonas Bell's magentic central performance. For a moment, it seems as though the sane part of Chapman will triumph, but finally, tragically, he is pulled back toward the act that will make him a "somebody".

The murder is shown explicitly. It's not filmed sensationally but the very fact of having it re-enacted made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't know whether to admire the film-makers' bravery in tackling it head-on, or whether to condemn them for being exploitative and making me an accessory in their crime. But we soon pass on to the aftermath of the act. There are no trite revelations: Chapman's motives are as thin as ever. Yes, he does have moments of tangible insanity but sometimes he just seems like a spoiled child desperate for attention.

Overall, this is an accomplished movie, whose look and feel belies its small budget. Moreover, any doubts one might have about the film-makers intentions are allayed by their commitment to authenticity in the script and production design. Yes, the movie made me feel uneasy and left me questioning my motives in seeking it out. But I think that's a good thing.

THE KILLING OF JOHN LENNON is on release in the UK and goes on release in the US in January 2008.

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