This blog is probably going to venture into some vague spoilers for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and some strong spoilers for the original version of The Vanishing. If you haven’t seen the Vanishing and don’t know the details of its main twist I’d suggest not reading further, hell I’d suggest not reading further anyways unless you really enjoy mangled prose.
As the spoiler warning suggests I watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo over the weekend. Based on a novel I haven’t read, although I hope to rectify that shortly, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a film I’m not entirely sure I liked but has had me mulling over it for the past five days. It is the kind of film which sort of leaves you a little dazed when leaving the cinema and then proceeds to chip its way into your cerebrum over time. This isn’t a review of the film, why would I even attempt to mangle a review when I’m sure it’ll be covered by someone with far more panache and insight on the main page. Instead I’m going to use the film as a springboard to talk about a type of character and a way of thinking which utterly terrifies me.
Towards the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo one of the protagonists ends up having a conversation with a serial killer. This conversation is perhaps the most disturbing part of a movie which has up to this point featured graphic rape scenes and institutional violence. What makes the scene so disturbing is that the killer is calm and logical at all times. He acts completely rational during the conversation, no Hannibal Lecter style grandstanding, no kooky tics or mother complexes. He just is calm and normal and almost serene, aside from the fact he is discussing the rape and murder of countless young girls.
“Although I admit, I love seeing the disappointment in their eyes. I keep them alive for weeks, and it doesn’t really enter their mindset that death is inevitable”.
This dispassionate insanity is a hard trick to pull off but when it works it is utterly eerie. My pet theory is that there is something seemingly unstoppable about a person who has managed to rationalise murder. Expanding on this I think what is so disquieting about rational, calm, murderers is that it is easier for us as members of a progressive society to imagine acts of violence as something base and animal. Violence is therefore practiced by people who are either caught up in the moment, willful acts of passion which inevitably erode at the conscience of the perpetrator over time, or people who don’t fit into society.
Within cinema this means that inherently violent people are often categorised as completely and utterly insane, maniacal and unable to hide their violence from society, or dispassionate and cold. The serial killer who wants to wear his victims face as a trophy and the taciturn gangster/hitman/grunt who kills because ‘it has to be done’ are two tropes of film which are acceptable because they show violence as either something you outlandishly revel in or switch off from. The humanity of both is compromised by this, but it allows us to accept these acts.
“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”
A character who revels in the violence but treats it logically and calmly completely defies our expectations and at a base level makes us question our perceived values of humanity. There is something alien about that thought process and something utterly fascinating, because it speaks to our darkest fears as a people. It’s why Crime and Punishment’s Rodion Raskolnikov is such a fascinating literary character, because he goes from one extreme to the other. Rationalising his act of murder and subsequently dehumanising himself before slowly regaining his humanity and seeking redemption through punishment allows us an insight into something we dislike about ourselves but also showcases an innate ‘goodness’ to humanity.
Perhaps logical maniacs terrify us because we fear that what is logical isn’t always right. Maybe that’s why HAL, more than forty years on, is still such an unnerving antagonist because even though within the context of 2001 he’s the most emotionally forthright character his actions are informed by a cold, logical, through line. The fear is that logic can’t be defeated, can’t be bargained with, or reasoned with and it’s what makes logical characters terrifying.
With crazed killers you can identify and exploit a weakness, you can pretend to be their dead mothers, refute their existence, or just leg it whilst they’re flailing around like psychopaths. With emotionally stunted killers/gangsters/hitmen there’s a chance you might reach through to them, you might create a connection which stops them shooting you in the eye or drowning you in cement. With the logical, calm, type you’ve got nothing to exploit and as such your eventual defeat seems assured. Even characters like the Joker have moments like this. In The Dark Knight he’s largely a ramshackle force of anarchy, apart from the opening moments where he creates and strictly adheres to a plan with utterly lethal results.
“No, no, no……I kill the Bus Driver”
Operating within his own frame of logic the Joker is far more capable and deadly than any other point in the film and there’s something dementedly terrifying about the domino effect of violence he establishes within his gang in that first sequence. The Joker has a sense of malice and evil which he never really has again in the film. Of course the Joker kind of becomes the epitome of my ‘outwardly crazy people being violent is acceptable’ but I still like to think the initial sequence counts due to how rational and calm he is during it.
European cinema seems to favour this kind of rational evil for its psychopaths, off the top of my head I can think of characters like Man Bites Dog’s Benoit and a number of Giallo killers who exemplify this trope. My favourite of the European rational psychopaths is however Raymond Lemorne from the original French/Netherlands version of The Vanishing. In The Vanishing Raymond abducts and murders a young woman and then convinces her boyfriend to repeat her fate. Framed partially by a road trip Raymond and the boyfriend, Rex, take the film examines the nature of Raymond’s sociopathy and in doing so paints a picture of a calm, rational, well to do man who is capable of utterly horrifying crimes.
“You see, Mr. Hoffman. For me, dying is not the worse thing.”
There are elements of Crime and Punishment in Raymond’s character. Whereas Raskolnikov rationalises his crime as an act of necessity, a morally sound act against a lesser person to maintain himself, Raymond seems to commit his horrifying acts as a way to prove his innate goodness. It’s a quest to prove his inner goodness by tapping into his darkest impulses and retaining his sense of self. As such there is something inevitable and tragic about Rex’s eventual fate.
Rex agrees to go with Raymond to not only gain closure on the disappearance of his girlfriend but also because he honestly seems to believe he can convince Raymond to turn himself in. Rex seems to believe he’s engaged in a battle of wills with Raymond whilst Raymond is unshakeable in his resolve. We as an audience know that Rex’s fate is sealed the moment he steps into the car, because Raymond’s sociopathy and cold indifference to his crimes means that the end result is a foregone conclusion.
Raymond, the definition of a physically unthreatening man, manages to become more terrifying than Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees purely because there’s nothing to exploit, nothing to unravel or use against him, in his character. He’s pure, terrifying, logic and within the context of a film like The Vanishing that makes him all powerful.