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Killer Performance

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Finger Exercises: Prisoner James Woods (left) gives guard Robert Sean Leonard a dressing down in "Killer: Journal of a Murder."

James Woods dominates 'Killer: Journal of a Murder'

By Richard von Busack

JAMES WOODS, his face like a devil sick of sin, to paraphrase Wilfrid Owen, is outstanding in Killer: A Journal of Murder as Depression-era psychopath and proto­serial killer Carl Panzram, a career criminal best known for his wish that humanity had one neck, so he could strangle it. Panzram's story was published in 1970, as explained in a bracketing sequence narrated by the elderly version of Panzram's jailer and friend, Henry Lesser (Henry Gould). In Leavenworth, Panzram gradually tells his tale to the young Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), a devout Jew who was lured to work at the prison by Eugene Debs' comment that "as long as there's a soul in prison, I am not free." Woods' Panzram cuts through the most excessive parts of Lesser's youthful naiveté while never portraying his character as a cartoon monster.

Director/writer Tim Metcalfe handles period slang well and weaves historical figures unobtrusively through the story (such as crusading psychiatrist Karl Menniger). Unfortunately, Metcalfe has picked up a few bad habits from executive producer Oliver Stone: inept Natural Born Killers­style flashback montages punctuated with shots of Panzram snarling at the camera like the Wolf Man, overly dramatic music, and ineffective women characters. Lesser's disapproving wife, Esther (Cara Buono), is a cipher, and the prattling librarian who becomes Panzram's victim displays no more personality to us than a chicken does to a coyote. On the other hand, an unbilled Lili Taylor, as a smoky-voiced bar girl, is powerfully sexual in her one scene, even if she only acts as a sounding-board to Lesser's conscience. And Leonard is more than just a conscience in spectacles and a pair of trousers. Like the movie itself, he maintains moral equilibrium without being a hand wringer.

But Woods is the soul of Killer: A Journal of Murder. His pleased lifting of the chin when being sentenced to hang, as if he'd at last won a longed-for award; his broad, bloody smile to a group of guards who have clubbed him; and his near-orgasmic pleasure in at long last being able to smash a guard's head--all are exhilarating scenes that would have been too much to watch if a weaker actor had done them. The movie makes the useful point that there are some people upon whom the moral lesson of the death penalty is lost, and Woods communicates something else that's important: how satisfying, how joyous, it must be to be a really first-rate actor.

Killer: A Journal of Murder (R; 92 min.), directed and written by Tim Metcalfe, photographed by Ken Kelsch and starring James Woods and Robert Sean Leonard.

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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