'Child 44' Is a Suspenseless Soviet-Era Misstep

By adding too many subplots and political asides to the true story of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Child 44 becomes a deadly bore.

Child 44

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman
US Release Date: 2015-04-17

Here's how to screw up a true story in five easy steps. First, you find source material that has its own agenda outside the innate interest in the reality of what happened. Second, you set it within a time and place that allows for easy proselytizing and a passable political point of view. Third, imbue what happened with fictionalized falderal, to better to showcase how you really don't care about history. Fourth, find a filmmaker with no discernible style or showmanship. Fifth and finally, forget that the audience needs to be invested in your conclusion, hoping that justice is served, wrong is righted, or whatever the case may be.

Do all those things and you have half of the reason why the new Soviet-era serial killer thriller Child 44 fails. This dark, dour attempt to tell the story of the Rostov Ripper, a.k.a. Cold War era crazy Andrei Chikatilo, adds too many subplots and Iron Curtain crap to what could have been an intriguing historical horror show. "Protected" for years by a country convinced that such crimes only happen in a decadent Capitalist society, he is rumored to have butchered 56 women and children over the course of his 12 year "career". Of course, his very existence proved Stalin and the Politburo 100 percent wrong.

It's a fascinating story, one we've heard -- and seen -- many times before. In fact, HBO tackled the material back in 1995 with the excellent Citizen X. Starring Donald Sutherland, Stephen Rea, and Max Von Sydow, it used the bleak backdrop of the '80s Soviet Union as a rejection of the Communist "paradise" propaganda. Child 44 wants to do something similar, but in the 26 years since the Berlin Wall fell, we no longer stare at the grim and drab designs of the USSR and think "novelty", especially in light of the gangster mindset that seem to permeate mainstream cinema when it comes to Russians.

In this confused version of Chikatilo's story, based on Tom Rob Smith's acclaimed book, we are introduced to two MGB agents, war hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy in a thick accent) and his nemesis Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman). The former has used his efforts during WWII (he raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin) as a means of staying outside the government's suspicions. The latter is jealous, and decides to get even with Leo by accusing his beloved wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace) of being a spy.

Quickly demoted, our hero head off to a small town outside Moscow. There, he learns that a friend's son has been found murdered, and he agrees to help local authority General Timur Nesterov (Gary Oldman) uncover what has happened. Before long, Leo starts to find more cases. Suddenly, it looks like the superpower has a serial killer on its hands, and the government will do anything to keep these crimes covered up, including threatening those who hope to expose them.

Imagine Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill taking a huge back seat to Clarice Starling and her interpersonal struggles both at home and on the job and you have a good idea why Child 44 doesn't work. We don't care about Leo, his wife, his rivalry with Vasili, or the whole "Gosh, the USSR was a dismal place back then" commentary. They can be accents, added to give the main narrative weight and dimension, but they shouldn't overpower the story. Yet thanks to a confusing script by famed crime writer Richard Price (Clockers) and color-desaturated direction from Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), that's exactly what happens.

It's a major misstep, like taking out a couple of car chases in Furious 7 so that we can focus on The Rock and his colleagues discussing proper bureaucratic procedure. We want the drama and dread of the typical clue-gathering cat and mouse. What we get instead are rare sequences of suspense followed by endless moments of political power playing. Now, this may have actually happened during the time of Chikatilo and there may be import to the added subtext, but Espinosa can't find it. He's too wrapped up in the production design and Cold War era iconography to make the ancillary material work within the story.

For their part, the actors are able if addled by what the film requires of them. Rapace, always a firebrand, is dialed down to meek and mild, which is never a good thing. Oldman is reliable and resilient, and Hardy -- outside of his Fearless Leader vocal qualities -- makes a fine lead. Kinnaman, however, is a mess. His handwringing baddie, straight out of a silent movie scenario, is only missing a moustache to twirl. He's almost more evil than the child killer at the center of the story -- almost.

By the end, all these asides and undercurrents destroy the crime story's mood and atmosphere. As the red herrings fall away and the truth is revealed, we just want it all to be over. Child 44 is a perfect example of a great idea done badly. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that ever since Jonathan Demme turned Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs into a multi-Oscar winner, we've seen dozens of derivative serial killer efforts. To succeed within the subgenre, you have to be different. This film is too dissimilar and yet at the same time wholly derivative. Even with a hand in history and reality, Child 44 never finds its footing.


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