The Killing of John Lennon

2008-01-02 (Limited release)

I can’t imagine [Mrs. Lennon’s] pain. I can’t feel it. I’ve tried to think about what it would be like if somebody harmed my family, and there’s just no way to make up for that, and if I have to stay in prison the rest of my life for that one person’s pain, everybody else to the side for a second, just that one person’s pain, I will.

— Statement of Mark David Chapman to the New York Parole Board, 3 October 2000

“He was so nice. Just can’t believe he was the one.” As Mark David Chapman (Jonas Ball) imagines himself remembered by a couple of girls he meets outside the Dakota, he articulates what’s at stake for him in The Killing of John Lennon. It’s a couple of days before the murder, and he’s hanging around the building, casing it “like an assassin.” The girls boast a casual acquaintance with Lennon, before they walk away, ignoring Mark’s invitation to dinner later that night. As they leave, he sees in them the possibility of his future fame, in terms that are at once disturbing and utterly banal.

Much of Andrew Piddington’s movie is like that, imagining an interior life for its 25-year-old protagonist, a life is as contradictory and exasperating as it is unknowable. Based in part on Chapman’s prison diaries, the film tracks his activities in the three months leading up to the murder. “All Chapman’s words are his own,” advises an opening title, though the character quotes liberally, if inaccurately, from movies like Taxi Driver (“My whole life has pointed in one direction, I can see that now. There has never been any choice for me”) and Apocalypse Now (“I was searching for some kind of guidance, a mission, and for my sins, I found one”). As the climactic event in Chapman’s story is well known, the film must look beyond plot for interest. To its credit, it doesn’t pretend to tell much more about Chapman than most everyone already knows. Instead, it uses him as the jumping off point for an exploration of celebrity culture, where the focus is not Lennon but the killer’s obsession with renown.

Fragmented and roiling, Chapman doesn’t provide much in the way of standard biopic fodder. Certainly, he’s sensationally troubled, as the movie indicates right off. Living in Honolulu with his wife Gloria (Mie Omori), he works nights at a tedious security job and nurses a low-level rage at his mother (Krisha Fairchild). Introduced as she’s flirting with a surfer kid younger than Mark, she looks pathetic; watching her from inside his car, he calls her “a dreamer, moody, right out of Glass Menagerie.” But if she seems drawn from fiction, her son is his own, much less inspired concoction, suffering from headaches and frustrations, immersing himself in the library (“I loved the smell of books,” he rhapsodizes, “All that learning, the essence of something orderly”). The camera tracks him through stacks, his eyes probing, his yearning palpable, until he finds Catcher in the Rye.

As the moderately famous Chapman lore has it, he read and reread Salinger’s novel, identifying with Holden Caulfield, sharing his loathing for “phonies.” As he voices his new self-image, the film illustrates, blandly: as he walks the streets in slow motion, the soundtrack overlaps thunder, music, and dialogue, Chapman’s confusion made clichéd, if not exactly confusing. Though he has flashbacks to the happier moments when he proposes to Gloria, in an effort to possess her and so, save her from the tawdry relationships he imagines she shares with coworkers.

Here the movie suggests that Chapman’s fears were of the most predictable sort — his jealousy, perversion, and efforts to control his experience (and Gloria’s) all a matter of his choice. Her part in his story is not the film’s concern, though she seems an ironic counterweight to the movie’s vision of Yoko Ono, also slight, obscured in shadow, and dark-haired, an inspiration and anchor for her husband. That Chapman recedes from Gloria even after he declares her love has “saved” him seems evidence of his insanity (the New York cops called him a “wacko” repeatedly), at least according to The Killing of John Lennon.

While Chapman’s sickness is repeatedly observable (when he hears a pair of “homos” in a next-door hotel room he says, “I flew into a rage inside myself”), the sure sign of his slide into his own deep end is Lennon, of course, whom he deems the number one and most conveniently targetable phony, or, as Chapman phrases it from Bellevue Hospital, the best means to “promote the reading of the book.” (Chapman reads a passage from Catcher in the Rye at his sentencing, “I’m standing at the edge of this crazy cliff…”)

Deciding that Lennon — who invites listeners to “imagine no possessions,” owns multiple apartments in the Dakota, cattle farms in Virginia, and a sea-faring yacht — must pay for his hypocrisies, Chapman goes through the usual motions. He buys a gun (from a fellow who quotes from Taxi Driver‘s Easy Andy: the .38, he says, “will stop anything that moves”) and finds solace in the seedy nooks of New York, though unlike Travis, he doesn’t go to porn movies but instead, Ordinary People, roused by Donald Sutherland’s melodrama: “Don’t admire people too much, they’ll disappoint you sometimes.”

This dynamic between admiration and disappointment forms a kind of grim center for The Killing of John Lennon. Connecting celebrity and betrayal not only in Chapman’s seeming mind, but also in its own structure, the film examines the interdependence of delusion and desire. It doesn’t much consider what Lennon means, how his assassination closed the ’70s or inaugurated the ’80s, or even how the media shaped that dire time. While the policemen watching over him also watch TV, Chapman describes his state of mind at the time of the shooting as if he’s been flattened: “There was no emotion in my blood, there was no anger, nothing. There was dead silence in my brain, dead cold quiet.” The movie argues against this emptiness on a larger scale by tracing the unsettling echoes among Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Captain Willard, Travis Bickle, and John Hinckley, Jr. (not to mention the complete and apparently legal ease with which guns are purchased and transported in America). “I was Mr. Nobody,” Chapman says, “Till I killed the biggest somebody on earth.”

But in this ambition, Chapman is neither singular nor deviant. Rather, he is a logical product of his moment. More tragically, he’s a projection, a look forward into the future of celebrity culture, our own present, when the destruction of stars has become business as usual.

RATING 6 / 10