When I told people that I was going to see a movie called The Killing of John Lennon, no one asked me the inevitable follow-up question: "What is it about?" It's pretty obvious that the title gives a good indication of what the movie's plot was going to be. But what I found is a movie that starts out as a riveting trip inside the mind of a killer, but ends up being a drawn-out history lesson that needs some re-editing, for more reasons than just length.
In the movie, written and directed by veteran British filmmaker Andrew Piddington, we follow Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, as he travels from Honolulu to New York, intent on killing a man who he felt was a "phony." Chapman's life in Hawaii isn't great -- while he seems happily married, he has a floozy mom and no seeming direction in his life -- and his psychosis isn't helping; in fact, it's making him withdraw from society. He becomes fascinated with desperate characters and starts to think he's the second coming of Holden Caufield of Catcher in the Rye. He reads about Lennon's wealth and determines that he needs to kill the former Beatle. The rest of the movie shows his trips to New York to stalk the former Beatle in front of his home at the Dakota, the act, and the aftermath.
Jonas Ball, in his first movie role, plays Chapman in all his massive-aviator-glasses glory, playing the calculating madman as a combination of Napoleon Dynamite and Travis Bickle. He shows Chapman to be as creepily human as the next person in most of the narrative scenes, while in scenes that are more stream-of-consciousness, he effectively conveys the internal meltdown an already unstable Chapman was experiencing.
Piddington, in the Q&A after the movie, said he studied news reports from the time period as well as depositions and other legal reports collected in the conspiracy book Who Killed John Lennon? in order to write the movie (he doesn't believe in the conspiracy, but was impressed with the book's treasure trove of information). He claims that no event made it into the screenplay that wasn't corroborated from three different sources. Indeed, the scenes leading up to and including the killing are well-done, taking the viewer inside Chapman's head and building tension toward an event that everyone knows is coming. He effectively uses home-movie flashbacks and other devices to show what Chapman's thinking at a particular time.
Unfortunately, after the killing is where the movie gets bogged down. We see Chapman give interviews, we see him tell people that he performed the murder in order to promote Catcher, we even see him get a prison exorcism. After the climax of Lennon's murder, the half-hour or so of the aftermath just feels like a long wrap-up. Also, we leave Chapman's head through much of this portion of the film, seeing him from the outside instead of the inside. It makes it feel like there's two different movies, and the product of the two of them together is about twenty minutes too long.
Another big problem with the film is some glaring anachronisms in the scenes where Chapman walks around New York. I was going to harp on this more, but Piddington acknowledged that this was an early cut of the movie; some of the street scenes, which he couldn't really do much about during filming due to budgetary reasons, seemed more glaringly anachronistic on screen than he initially thought during the editing process. It really did look like a lot of the scenes were filmed with no permits on open streets; the film takes place in 1980, yet we see modern cars and street signs throughout.
He may be able to fix some of those scenes digitally, but he's going to have to cut out some of the Times Square scenes in the movie completely; the 2007 version of Times Square Chapman stands is in no way close to the Times Square the real Chapman would have stood in twenty-seven years ago. Instead of big neon banners and Jumbotrons, he would have been standing under peep show signs and grindhouse theater marquees. There's no amount of digital manipulation he could do to fix that.
The anachronisms do take you out of the movie's reality for a bit, but the overall length is really what grinds the viewer down. I'll be curious to see if Piddington's next cut of The Killing of John Lennon is shorter with less obvious mistakes in the period setting. If it is, he'll have one of the best movies of the year. As it is, it's still a worthy viewing, just one that would be midway down your Netflix list.