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~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)
Malcolm McDowell is one of those actors who was seemingly born to play lunatics. From his earliest roles in Clockwork Orange and Caligula on through to the modern day, McDowell has built such a career out of playing the sneering heavy that even his roles that aren’t strictly villainous manage to come off as somewhat sinister. But even McDowell had never played anyone quite so despicable as Andrej Romanovic Evilenko in David Grieco’s Evilenko.
The character Evilenko is based on the real-life Andrei Chikatilo, a Russian serial killer who operated from 1978 to 1990. Even by serial killer standards, Chikatilo was a nasty piece of work. His victims numbered over fifty, all women and children, whom he molested, killed, and mutilated, not necessarily in that order. It can’t be the most pleasant headspace to inhabit, but McDowell proves up to the task, portraying Evilenko as cantankerous, but functional, not charismatic, but wily, not imposing, but ferocious and implacable against victims who can’t fight back. Forced to resign a teaching position after one too many disconcerting outbursts, Evilenko finds employment with the declining but still influential Communist party. As an anachronistically hard line Communist himself, this proves to be a lethally good fit as Evilenko gains a reason to travel extensively, and enough influence to make most people mind their own business. Greico brings us along every step of the way, Evilenko striking with near impunity as mood and opportunity allow. It’s an exhausting twenty-five minutes before law enforcement becomes a factor. These are personified in Vadim Timurouvic Lesiev played by Marton Csokas. Lesiev is given the unenviable task of solving a problem that has been growing unchecked for years. To this end, he recruits Aron Richter (Ronald Pickup), a Psychoanalyst in semi-retirement, in an attempt to bring the investigation up to some approximation of modern standards.
Evilenko loses a little steam when it turns this corner. Richter provides some interesting exposition regarding the possible cause of this relatively new Soviet serial killer phenomenon, but his desire to study the suspect versus Lesiev’s lack of assurance that he would be taken alive causes him to go rogue in a way that falls a little too far outside the bounds of common sense. Evilenko, meanwhile, manifests a near supernatural ability to mesmerize his victims into a state of somnambulant helplessness after the police conduct an interview with one of his escaped targets. Though I can see the movie needing a way to streamline his kills once more plot threads are set into motion, the abrupt break with realism is jarring. Once Evilenko is finally captured, a fit of pique by Lesiev’s superiors prevents a key piece of evidence from being used in the attempt to obtain a confession. Lesiev’s subsequent methods are… unorthodox, to say the least.
Despite these hiccups, however, Evilenko has a lot going for it. Its depiction of a Soviet Union in the early stages of glasnost and perestroika is an intriguing vision of a house divided, with Evilenko himself as an embodiment of the disorganized confusion felt by an entire country in the midst of having a self-destructive identity replaced by no identity at all. So too are the images of an understaffed, underfunded, and underequipped Russian police force trying fitfully to modernize itself in order to combat an unprecedented new problem.
The violence is surprisingly discreet for a movie about a serial killer, usually kept to brief, bloody flashes of the aftermath of a deed. Given the nature of the real Chikatilo’s kills, this was probably as much of a practical decision as a stylistic one, but the movie helpfully fills in the blanks with descriptions and reactions. Going with a “less is more” approach was probably foregone conclusion anyway, all things considered, but the movie expertly turns this to its advantage.
At length, Evilenko is captured, and the movie fairly zips through its final reel. Part of me feels as though this was a missed opportunity. The arrest and trial of Chikatilo was a sensation in the Russian news, the first true media circus for the newly opened, free(-ish) press. Despite the mountain of evidence against him, including his own very detailed confessions, the trial itself was a farce, seemingly conducted with the sole intention of fast-tracking Chikatilo to the execution chamber, which, ultimately, it did. This aspect of the story could have probably been a movie all its own, but coming as it does at the end of an emotionally wearying two hours, it is, I suppose, just as well that it was glossed over instead of attempted in an abridged form that fails to do it justice.
I once attended a Q&A session in which Malcolm McDowell stated that, of his many films, this was the one he wished more people would see, and it’s easy to understand why. McDowell dominates every one of his scenes, handling challenging material with aplomb and creating a monstrous character that, while hardly likeable, is just recognizable enough to be truly unsettling. It’s not a perfect film, some of the plot shortcuts in the second half stand in stark contrast to the meticulous setup of the first, but it is truly an underseen gem that’s well worth seeking out if you can stomach the challenging subject matter.
Final Score: B
Malcolm McDowell turns in a virtuoso performance as a truly loathsome sociopath, set against the backdrop of a tumultuously changing Soviet Union.
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