Starring Elijah Wood
Fitting quite a few notable criteria the American Psychiatric Association would deem typical in many a serial killer — male, loner, targets females, same race — Maniac the reboot does well by avoiding trappings of the genre. Effectively, this contains it firmly within the slasher sub-genre, a considerable distance outside of the pure serial killer. This makes for easy pigeonholing. By no means was any statement above an indictment of an original I have not seen.
In Maniac the writer avoids psychological commentary by doing away with the police work, lead building, interviews, and the inevitable mayor pressers as if to discourage any discussion on mental disorders, at least during runtime. To further assert the writer’s possible intention, the focus is exclusively put on the lead character, the perpetrator, for the entirety of the film. Literally, the proceedings are taken in from Frank’s point of view. This can make for an approach too unorthodox for some viewers to stay with.
In its defense, the film is beautifully shot, and features one of the better pairings of composed score and licensed music. Your sonic ‘palette’ will not have to do much adjustment or stretching between arrangements and songs. Add the gritty, seldom seen portrayal of Los Angeles and you could not be faulted for thinking of similar sounds from Drive and Heat. Though the latter eclipsed the former two in scope and diversity of sound, all three served their function well; make the visual aural.
Of almost all the serial killers I’ve read on, mommy issues feature as a profile signature. Here, Frank’s mother is seen in one flashback turning tricks in their home and later (in not so much a hallucination but a visualization of a memory recollection) taking it from behind in the street. The mother does not appear to be that old suggesting a few episodes at an early age in Frank’s life were enough to send him off the deep end. Earlier, in the film, Frank is shown to behave in a reasonably healthy manner toward women around him. Particularly when his stalky gaze cannot go unnoticed. Those renowned Elijah jeepers. This suggests some level of composure and control over hidden urges that, when allowed to surface, are accompanied by schizophrenic behavior. He even begins a budding friendship with a friendly but ultimately a self-absorbed, self-serving young woman who takes interest in his restoration project. Albeit hers is of the superficial variety. As a photographer, she is in the business of documenting things on an as-is basis.
The blood quest, a morbid attempt of catharsis, takes us through a variety of locales, and with little establishing photography we are soon plunged deeper into Frank’s unconventional pastime. Next to the MO proper is another of isolating his victims. This is what all those locations have in common. Stealthy entry, and a swift exit. Interspersed between his outings are the ‘souvenirs’ he brings home and lamenting hysterics directed at newly modified mannequins, a projection of his mother.
It is a matter of time when Frank realizes all too late that business and pleasure should remain immiscible. His relationship with Anna is quick-developing. And when his rendezvous with her prove the dangerous liaison, curiously to both of them, the cat is out of the bag, the die is cast, and the climax plays out to a tragic finish. All the deliberation exhibited before comes undone at the behest of passion. For a rather impulsive habit, the meticulousness the delicate craft of restoring mannequins demands eludes him.
POV, its Subtexts, and Innuendo
But the choice of employing POV cinematography is worthy of discussion. The opening sequence nonchalantly pans on a sidewalk in the evening. Two young women cross the street with the camera following them. One leaves and the other waits for a cab and is approached by a guy. She ignores him and when that doesn’t work she walks away. He follows her briefly then gives up. In the ensuing ambiguity of the scene was suspense cleverly planted. You would expect Frank to either emerge from one corner, or the cab driver watching from the camera lens to solicit a fare, until you hear someone breathing off camera. Then the conversation to no one in particular. Except maybe with himself. That must have been Frank watching. The entire film was to be shot this way, it dawned on me. I jumped to this conclusion because I had already seen one scene midway through. At the time POV seemed a novel idea to visually narrate one scene. Several scenes. Tops. Specific ones. The murder scenes, maybe. But it was to be a stylistic choice throughout.
In grappling with words to articulate my thoughts on the film, I have found merit in the stylistic choice of entirely shooting the film in POV. If the spate of recent shootings have taught us anything — and several took place before the film’s release — it is that the danger posing agency lurks among the unassuming. And if the debate on cause and effect is often chalked up to gun control, a misguided notion, evidence to society’s inability to confront trauma abounds. Irrespective of either argument is the manner in which Maniac portrays action from a claustrophobic view. Frank is seldom visible in whole. Much like the intentions of the Elliot Rodgers of the world are essentially obscure, nondescript and trivial before the fact (the claim to fame remains the notoriety from bloodshed, lest we forget) and by similar effect, their respective persons as gleaned from one certain manifesto, and any memoir that surfaces for that matter, Frank appears only in reflection, and very briefly in the last premeditated murder. It could be that it was the only calculated assault that we are shown glimpses of Frank in the third person, to borrow from gaming parlance. Therein lies subtlety of intent by the director that is unfortunately lost on the common cinema goer.
Mental disorders are stigmatized while the legacy of their more pronounced outliers are afforded the infamy of a poster boy splendor. Society’s paradoxical reasoning knows no bounds when blood spills. Eerie glimpses of Frank’s chronicles as shown on those interacting with him are wide ranging though ultimately yield to the familiar rhetoric — a road we’ve been down before. Our both active and passive participation in our own demise, or near brushes. Continually, it appears, we involuntarily push buttons indiscriminately. Though enough were shown to be unprovoked, in one case we see otherwise. Anna’s Kanye West knockoff of a boyfriend mocks him in the men’s rooms. He escapes unscathed because Frank’s a pussy who selectively dishes retribution, and only at low hanging fruit. Anna’s benefactor-cum-mentor in the gallery outside next does the same. Anna herself admitting her romantic unavailability to no one in specific but Frank. And his second victim, against whom we get to see a semblance of character depth courtesy of Frank. While never intended to be a personal or an impartial look into a killer’s psyche, the face of Frank is made an unfamiliar one — at least for our mainstream aligned mind — by getting pushed to the margins of the very set he is ironically the center of.