Jack the Ripper, asserts Detective Chandler Manning (Alfred Molina), is “the personification of evil. No motive, flauntingly violent, never caught. He’s Iago with a knife, a fucking shadow lurking in the darkest corner of the human mind. He’s the reason the police exist.” Manning knows: he’s a Ripper expert, according to his new partner, Street Wilkenson (Shane West), his interest in the killer costing him dearly, with regard to his career and his family. What Manning doesn’t mention is that Jack the Ripper is also the reason for a small subgenre of serial killer movies. And Manning is living—however imperfectly—inside one of them.
This would be The Lodger, yet another filmic iteration of the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. (Previous versions include Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, released in 1927, and John Brahm’s 1944 thirller, both of the same name, the latter starring an incredible Laird Cregar, who died tragically at 28.) Manning is not facing down the Ripper per se, but is instead trying to solve murders committed by a copycat in West Hollywood, circa now. Because the copycat is as obsessive about the original details as is Manning, the cop and his prey appear evenly matched—so evenly, in fact, that at various points in the film, Manning is suspected by his own captain, Smith (Philip Baker Hall), of being the killer. Manning has his own issues with the current case, as some years ago he helped to convict another man named Rodriguez of similar crimes: Rodriguez was put to death, and now that new murders and new “evidence” have emerged, the “Latino population” is agitating on the sidewalk outside police headquarters.
Aside from the ongoing PR disaster, this significant error in judgment represents to Manning a succession of other errors, leading to estrangement from his daughter Amanda (Rachael Leigh Cooke), following his wife Margaret’s (Mel Harris) attempted suicide and subsequent institutionalization. (During one feeble attempt to reconcile, Amanda makes dinner for her father, then berates him at the table: “You put her there. You were obsessive and relentlessly controlling, she told me even in bed…” All right! Manning stops her, “Stop it!”) The detective’s various failures, past and present, pile up during The Lodger, as he tries to make sense of the Ripper, the neo-Ripper, the angry daughter, and—perhaps most troubling—the new partner, who suggests—following Manning’s complaint about his “effeminate fucking little knock” on the office door—that he’s gay.
In its too-clever, heavy-handed way, David Ondaatje’s movie offers up a series of potentially interesting meta-texts, concerning the significantly named Manning’s obsession and aggression, his professional identity and, of course, masculinity. All of these elements are put in play during the film’s opening moments, an exercise in very regular scene-setting: Manning makes his way through a rainy night to a crime scene, already marked off and lit by blood-red lights atop cruisers. The uniformed officer on site cautions, “It’s a hooker sir, it’s pretty nasty.” Undeterred, Manning crouches by the corpse now covered by a bloody sheet. He takes a look beneath the cover, then glances back at the man beside him, his face contorted to indicate that what he’s seen is indeed “nasty.” The camera pulls out and up, intimating Manning’s vulnerability in a miserable world.
That vulnerability is made acute as he persists in looking back at the 19th century case and has trouble managing present day cultural politics. As Street and Amanda embody different younger-generational correctives to the aging detective’s worldview (at least, as the film sets them apart from him, judgmental but wanting to sympathize too), he is unaware that the film is offering a parallel track to his investigation, a deeply distressed household that also features a woman, like Margaret, who is unable to deal with her husband.
Ellen (Hope Davis) disdains and resents her security guard husband Joe (Donal Logue), who in turn sees her as “crazy” since a breakdown some undetermined time ago which has left her with a meds regime that she tends not to follow. This point is mostly made in asides, as when he leaves for work and reminds her, “Take your damn pills,” in order that their efforts to rent out a guest house on their property might at last be successful (“Nobody’s going to rent this place if they think the landlady’s a lunatic”).
At the same time that it comments obliquely on Manning’s bad husband-ness, this couple’s tension also sets up for the most obvious titular character, Malcolm (Simon Baker), whose generic smoothness is apparently enough to make Ellen overlook his extreme moodiness and straight-up weirdness, insisting that no one disturb him, that his landlords stay out of his room, that the paintings of women that line the walls must all come down because “They’re all staring at me, everywhere, it’s a little unnerving.” Ellen accepts all this in the first minutes of meeting Malcolm: when he takes the room, she takes his money—three months in advance—and then recovers herself, sort of, saying she had forgotten to mention “references.” He smiles and assures her, “Oh, I won’t be needing those, just privacy.”
None of this is precisely convincing, though the illogic of such interactions does open the doors the film needs opened, that whatever any single character is perceiving in any given scene may or may not be the film’s present reality. The murders of prostitutes in West Hollywood are repeatedly intercut with seeming flashbacks to the Ripper’s first version, though all these images of awful violence are unpersuasively abstract, mostly close-ups of heels clacking on sidewalks, just before a pair of boots and billowing topcoat enter the frame and beleaguer the screaming-gasping woman off screen. These stylized representations, along with time-lapsed traffic and time-lapsed tea-tray preparations by Ellen (as she does her best to romance her new boarder) don’t convey emotional information so much as they serve as transitions between plot points. That these plot points are in themselves repetitive and banal doesn’t help matters. As Manning persists in his efforts to solve the murders as well as his own life, Ellen and Joe and Malcolm seem increasingly like narrative appendages, ways to direct your readings of Manning more than characters with their own lives to solve.