Almost 20 years have come and gone since John Wayne Gacy was put to death for his grisly handwork. For people who remain unfamiliar with Gacy’s story the ghoulishly titled “Killer Clown” was convicted of a string of brutal slayings (a majority of which occurred in the Chicagoland area) in 1980. In the interim since Gacy’s initial apprehension his life and horrific proclivities have been chronicled in an innumerable amount of films, books, and psychological profiles, leaving very little to be said on the topic of this volatile and disturbed mind.
However, the new film, Dear Mr. Gacy, while certainly not revelatory with the information it presents still manages to provide an intriguing and genuinely upsetting glimpse into a side of Gacy’s saga that received considerably less attention. Based on the memoir The Last Victim by Jason Moss the film profiles a period of intense and extremely personal correspondence that transpired between Moss (who was an 18-year-old college student at the time) and Gacy, who was awaiting execution on death row. Moss, who was looking for a unique topic for a college criminology paper, was able to obtain the killer’s confidence by presenting himself (in his letters and phone conversations) as a personality tailored to appeal to Gacy’s warped pathology. The film is almost entirely character driven and focuses completely on the relationship that developed between the two men, slowly and effectively building tension and complexity as the two figures battle for control and psychological dominance.
Despite its slow beginning the film instantly becomes engrossing once we are introduced to the incarcerated Gacy, who is played by William Forsyth in a great performance. Forsyth presents Gacy in a placid and utterly banal manner which completely subverts our expectations of the man. After Jason Moss (played by Jessie Moss – no relation) initiates contact with the man their correspondence gradually becomes more invasive and psychologically perverse. Forsyth brilliantly reveals additional layers to the killer’s psychology slowly throughout the film, presenting Gacy as a man fixated on power, driven to dominate those around him.
Benefiting strongly from a pair of powerful and believable performances from the two leads (Jessie Moss is also excellent and matches Forsyth’s intense ferocity in every scene) and a shrewd script that skewers the established conventions of the genre, Dear Mr. Gacy becomes an absorbing and innovative entry into the annals of serial killer cinema.
The inherent strength of the film is derived predominantly through the interactions between Gacy and Moss. Whenever the film chooses to briefly diverge from their depraved but undeniably multilayered discourse its flaws become more apparent. One particular example of this is the film’s characterization of Jason’s family. Not only are the actors who portray Jason’s mother and brother egregiously wooden with their performances, the script, which is so fixated on the development of Gacy and Moss, paints his family and girlfriend with a broad brush. They come off not as characters but aggravating caricatures. The mother is a domineering harpy, the brother an annoying git, and the girlfriend an undersexed and emasculating creep.
The film also chooses to present Jason’s deterioration and paranoia (provoked after Gacy makes threats against his family) in such a bombastic fashion that it sadly undercuts much of the tension that could have come from a more nuanced approach. Thankfully, the scenes that adopt such a ridiculously melodramatic quality are rare. The majority of the film transpires in a refreshingly subtle and almost docudrama-like fashion. The mise-en-scene that is harnessed by director Svetozar Ristovski reflects this tone, with the art direction and cinematography being mundane and unobtrusive.
John Wayne Gacy may be long gone. Yet, through films such as Dear Mr. Gacy it is clear that there is still something to say about this repugnant individual. Forsyth’s portrayal illustrates that Gacy was not some sort of otherworldly demon, but a normal guy who had an enormous propensity for violence and a complete disregard for the lives and families that he was choosing to destroy. Ristovski’s film, while not perfect, should stand as a seminal cinematic depiction of the sheer force of Gacy’s disturbing pathology. Through his relationship with Gacy Jason Moss (as it seems to be suggested by his memoir) became the “last victim” for the murderer. By fabricating a story to appeal to Gacy’s tastes Moss gained the opportunity to stare into the abyss. However, we have to wonder what he saw there. In 2006, Jason Moss would take his own life.