Sympathy for the Serial Killer?

Imagining Kevin Costner, who, after Bull Durham, seems to have entered into a marathon competition to be Hollywood’s most glum and unthrilling leading man, as a psychotic serial killer is only slightly less laughable than, say, imagining him as a fetish-wear villain in a Mad Max sequel. But that may just be why casting him as the lead in 2007’s Mr. Brooks worked so well. Costner plays the title character, an intelligent, mild mannered businessman, philanthropist, father, and husband (hence the “Mister”) who, gasp!, just happens to be an infamous Portland area serial killer. Costner, naturally, is as sane and decent as they come — it’s actually his alter ego, Marshall, who appears in the form of a scheming, sinister William Hurt — who’s deranged. The casting of Costner and Hurt as Brooks and his conscience is about the only thing that works in the preposterous, poorly conceived film, which treads much the same territory as Showtime’s far-superior serial-killer series, Dexter.

Dexter may be clever and juicily intriguing while Mr. Brooks is contrived and vaguely annoying, but both share an unsettling thematic thread: The serial-killer protagonists in both are not only glorified, but normalized. As father, husband, and philanthropist, Brooks is portrayed as a fundamentally decent human being who kills, he explains, only because it’s an addiction. Dexter, who by day is a goofy crime-scene blood-spatter nerd on the Miami police force, stays in his viewers’ good graces by only murdering criminals let off by a flawed justice system. Both spend time attending AA meetings, and both works encourage viewers to treat the compulsion to kill as, effectively, an unfortunate affliction.

It’s one thing to recognize the terrible, operatic seduction of extravagant killers like those found in, say, Seven or Silence of the Lambs. But it’s quite another to reimagine them as basically okay guys who just have a little problem. The Sopranos toyed with this notion, but never actually embraced it; indeed, by the end of the series made a forceful case that Tony Soprano was, indeed, a monster, a murderously exaggerated version of what passes for normal in America’s upper middle class.

Dexter, and, even more so, Mr. Brooks, go the opposite direction, occasionally questioning whether their protagonists’ compulsions make them less than human. But the answer always seems to resolve with “probably not.” The problem I have isn’t in making movies and shows about serial killers (I think Seven, Silence, and Michael Mann’s original Manhunter are all superb films), it’s in essentially saying “but other than the whole compulsive killing thing, they’re really okay guys!” Unlike in The Sopranos, there’s essentially no recognition of the moral drag such a compulsion might exert on a person, even accepting (which I find difficult) that any such individual might be basically decent to begin with. Both Dexter and Mr. Brooks seem designed as dares to our moral intuitions, asking us to cast aside judgment and horror in favor of shocking us with what (both bet) our own sympathies are capable of. In the case of Dexter, that makes for reasonably compelling television, but in exchange for being entertained, it also requires viewers to first disengage their most basic moral sense.