Monday, August 31, 2015

'To Catch a Killer': Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy


I've spent about three hours the past two nights watching Brian Dennehy play John Wayne Gacy in "To Catch a Killer."

Gacy, for those unfamiliar with him, was a Chicago-area serial killer convicted of sexually torturing and murdering some 30 teenage boys and burying their bodies in his basement, under his garage, under the floorboards of his rec room, and elsewhere. To all outward appearances, he was an upstanding member of the community who regularly donated to civic organizations, and who performed for children as Pogo the Clown. The movie was made for TV, and aired in 1992.

Dennehy gives a great, just-the-right-side-of-creepy performance of Gacy, a man with cocksure grin who engages police in cat-and-mouse maneuvers as the pressure slowly builds; opposite an equally strong Michael Riley as Detective Joe Kozencza, who becomes convinced early on that Gacy is behind the recent disappearance of a local teen and then gradually realizes the monstrosity of Gacy's crimes.

The movie's got some good drama. In addition to the performances of its leads and supporting actors, it depicts Kozencza as a man under pressure as he overcomes colleagues' professional skepticism to bring Gacy in. He's got to convince not only his chief to provide the manpower, but his detectives that he's not wasting their time; and he's got to complete the case before Gacy's attorney can file a harassment lawsuit that will shut the case down.

It's got a few weak points too. I could have done with fewer car chases, myself; and the decision to include a psychic (Margot Kidder) seems silly in a story that focuses on more serious detective work in a true crime story. It also felt too often like the movie focused on Gacy's orientation, as if that were a sign of his depravity instead of incidental to it; but that at least may be a product of when the movie was made.

Still, what a movie. Dennehy was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Gacy; and Riley and director Eric Till each were nominated for a Gemini Award. I generally don't think much of TV movies, and there's no doubt that the movie glossed over the more horrifying elements of Gacy's crimes; but this was a good movie.

Part two:


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