Killer: A Journal of Murder [1996]

James Woods gives one of his finest performances in this flawed but fascinating film about imprisoned serial killer Carl Panzram, who was hanged in 1930 after he beat a prison worker to death--the last of a reported 21 killings. The film centers on the tentative trust and friendship between Panzram and prison guard Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), whose attempt to understand Panzram's violent life leads him to believe that Panzram could redeem himself from a life of crime. Told primarily in flashbacks, Panzram's story unfolds as Lesser reflects upon its significance. In reality Panzram's life was a constant succession of unspeakable acts and violent crimes; for the purposes of the film, writer-director Tim Metcalfe attempts to humanize Panzram's story, leaving the viewer to decide if Panzram was deservedly executed, or the victim of his own miserable past. The film's ambivalence--and its tendency to leave crucial questions unanswered--lessens its impact as a biographical drama, but Woods and Leonard work superbly together, and Metcalfe's script paints a vivid portrait of the criminal mind. The DVD includes a full-length director's commentary that fills in some of the factual details that the film leaves out. --Jeff Shannon

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