The most intriguing thing about The Killing of John Lennon is that the voiceover narration (by the actor playing Lennon murderer Mark David Chapman), and a certain amount of what Chapman says undergoing interrogation and such, are Chapman’s actual words taken verbatim from writings and transcripts. So there’s a realism to it. You’re taken inside Chapman largely via his own words rather than via the interpretation of a filmmaker or someone else.
And to give credit where credit is due, actor Jonas Ball is dead on as Chapman. He’s appropriately creepy-looking and creepy-acting without overdoing it.
There’s very little else I liked about this film, however.
Stylistically it’s pretentious and melodramatic (as if the story itself isn’t already depressing and dramatic enough without an artificial boost). It’s all oppressive close-ups and herky jerky cuts.
There is no Lennon or Beatles music, despite the obvious fit. (Not saying that was by choice; no doubt they couldn’t get the rights.) Some of the soundtrack is vaguely Lennonesque I suppose, but that’s hardly a substitute.
Mostly though, the content of the story makes this an unpleasant movie to watch, which is not the fault of the people making the film, but is just history.
Not surprisingly, there’s nothing from Chapman that puts his act in a light that renders it more justified. But beyond that, he isn’t even that interesting a kook. Yes, what he did sets him apart (as he intended) from most crazies—and almost all people—but not as a manifestation of anything extraordinary about him.
Even as a wack job, he’s utterly mediocre.
He has mother issues (she’s in the movie and is clearly a kook herself, so no doubt there’s a genetic element to his disorder). He is a loner (though he’s married—to a woman depicted as such a meek non-entity as to basically be invisible). He’s interested in guns and has violent fantasies. He’s spent time in mental hospitals. He has an obsession with being noticed and appreciated, being taken seriously. He has convoluted reasons for his murder, but nothing particularly insightful, sophisticated, daring, or even necessarily coherent.
So he’s not even an interesting or unusual villain. I thought would-be assassin Sam Byck (or at least the partly fictionalized version played by Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon) had a lot more depth to him.
It’s just a depressing story through and through, because he murdered one of my all-time favorite artists, and twisted one of my all-time favorite books (The Catcher in the Rye) into his inspiration for doing so. (Indeed, even citing one of my all-time favorite passages in literature—the one that gives the book its title—in doing so.)
He’s infuriated that Lennon is rich, while singing about peace and love and non-materialism and such, though it’s not like he’s made some deep analysis of the matter. It’s very much a kneejerk reaction. His primary motive is he needed to do something “big” to be famous; he happened to settle on killing Lennon and needed some rationalization for that choice. But it could have easily been something else (he mentions jumping off the Empire State Building or assassinating the President as possibilities). I don’t see it as a deep and long-standing obsession with Lennon.
But his knock on Lennon is that he is the kind of “phony” that disgusts the idealistic Holden Caulfield.
Needless to say, I think he’s wrong.
For one thing, it’s an ad hominem. If there’s merit to what Lennon said, then there’s merit to what Lennon said, regardless of how much or how little his life matched what he said.
But beyond that, in a sense I don’t have all that big a problem with hypocrisy, at least of certain types. What I mean is, I have a lot more respect for someone who espouses very high ideals and lives up to them 50%, than I do for someone who aims low and reaches their target, even though the former person is the one who’s a “hypocrite.”
It’s easy, for instance, for the type of rich conservatives who praise philosophies like that of Ayn Rand or social Darwinism or whatever to avoid hypocrisy. They just have to be selfish sons of bitches and grab all the money and power they can without being held back by the “weakness” of having a conscience. Is that somehow better than a “hypocrite” liberal who spends considerable time and money fighting for social justice and trying to help people but still has more material possessions than the poorest of the poor, or a “hypocrite” Christian who tries to turn the other cheek and love her enemies but cannot eliminate all anger and ill will from within her?
Yeah, if hypocrisy is a matter of pretending to believe in certain ideals that you don’t, then it’s bad. But if it just means failing to fully live up to your ideals, then the higher your ideals the harder it is to avoid hypocrisy, and really I think it’s one of the most forgivable of failings.
And as far as the “phoniness” that Caulfield (to his credit) finds intolerable, that applies at most in a limited way to Lennon. Caulfield hated that so much of what people say is bullshit, that consciously or subconsciously we’re all pragmatically saying what we need to say to achieve our ends, treating each other like used car salesmen. Especially in the case of artists like his brother, we should instead be speaking from the heart rather than going “Hollywood” and making our choices for commercial reasons. The ideal is the innocence and honesty of children, who say what they mean and live spontaneously and sincerely, because they haven’t yet learned the advantageousness of dissembling.
By that standard, was Lennon especially egregious? Well, he was a grown-up, and a successful one at that, so it’s a safe bet he made plenty of compromises. But surely he was far more frank than most people, far more willing to say what he really believed regardless of whether it would be popular or what the consequences would be for him. As far as just in his art, can one really say that Lennon sold out and was just another artificial celebrity churning out product based on market research, as opposed to staying true to his vision and expressing what was in his heart?
Lennon was a “phony” in the sense that everyone compromises, everyone has some hypocrisy, but I dare say he’d rank far closer to the top than the bottom of the human race in authenticity. He hardly seems the type a Caulfieldian would single out as the worst of the phonies. As much of a purist as Caulfield wanted to be in his heart of hearts, it’s entirely possible he would not have been satisfied with Lennon’s degree of frankness, but, unless he developed to be as loony as Chapman, I seriously doubt he would have regarded Lennon as somehow more objectionably phony than the countless people who much more fully and unambiguously sell out.
Furthermore, Caulfield isn’t about murdering “phonies.” Chapman refers multiple times to Caulfield’s fantasizing about killing the hooker’s bruiser companion who hit him and stole from him, but, one, that was a superficial daydream of revenge, not something he had any serious intention to do, and, two, he didn’t want to strike back in rage at that guy because he was a “phony,” but because he hit him and stole from him. So there is no relevant analogy there to Chapman’s murder.
There’s also the issue that some people have raised that this movie is offensive because it adds to precisely the notoriety that motivated Chapman. It puts him center stage, provides a forum for his twisted ideas to be expressed. (I read one review that not only panned the film, but refused to mention Chapman by name for precisely this reason.) And I am troubled by that a little bit. I’m not going to give it a lot of weight, and I think a movie of greater merit on this subject could in principle be justified in spite of this factor, but I think it deserves some non-zero weight.
All-in-all, the historical event The Killing of John Lennon is about is a huge downer, and there’s not enough in the way the movie handles it to overcome that and make viewing it a worthwhile experience.
The bottom line is I spent half this film muttering “miserable fuck.”