Behind Elijah Wood’s angelic looks and the “good guy” persona seen throughout films like the Lord of the Rings and Flipper there has always been a darkness. Of course Wood has ripped into his demonic side before, most notably with his scene-stealing performance in Sin City as the vicious serial killer Kevin. Yet, that was still a supporting role. Wood has never showcased his raging viciousness like he does in Franck Khalfoun’s stylish, powerful remake of the 1980 cult film Maniac. His performance is the element which the film hinges upon and he delivers in spades. Thankfully the film, despite adhering to as many clichés at it subverts, and possessing blatantly unbelievable moments, is equal to him. The aesthetic components of Khalfoun’s cinema coalesce strongly to capture a striking portrait of LA’s steely blankness. It is an aesthetic achievement that would make Michael Mann proud and a piece of work that deserves a spot in the upper echelon of serial killer cinema.
From the opening frames of Khalfoun’s film we are placed into the subjective mind-scape of Wood’s Frank – a lonely, impossibly polite man. Frank is the owner of a mannequin shop, which was left to him following the death of his mother. Khalfoun obliterates any ambiguity related to this maniac’s intentions or pathology right from the film’s opening scene. This is a guy who is anything but a mild-mannered milquetoast. Frank is compelled to kill women, taking their scalps as trophies.
The aesthetic technique which defines Maniac is its first person, POV perspective. The viewer is transported directly into the mind of Frank, voyeuristically experiencing his violent antics and hallucinogenic fantasies through his eyes. This technique pushes the viewer close to the brutality, producing a visceral look at the reality (or fantasy) of Frank’s existence. Because of this continuous first-person perspective Elijah Wood is often present off-screen, only being seen in reflective surfaces or heard through voice-over.
Initially this is ineffective, with Wood’s comments seem forced, over-the-top or just plain goofy. To a certain degree this quality never goes away, as the script by Alexandre Aja doesn’t ever capture anything approaching credibility. Yet, the intriguing thing about the film (which is a testament to Wood’s performance) is that gradually Frank’s awkward, obviously scripted dialogue comes to compliment the character not detract from him. This is a character who has no idea on how to relate to anyone and probably isn’t in possession of what one would define as a real personality. It shouldn’t really be surprising that his comments sound artificial or soulless.
Unfortunately the same thing can’t be said for the film’s supporting cast, who for the most part come off as caricatures possessing the same amount of human complexity as one of Frank’s mannequins. This disparagement is not universally applicable of course. Nora Arnezeder as Anna (a French photographer who becomes the object of Frank’s desire) manages to turn in quite a believable performance. This is no small feat as neither Khalfoun or Aja give us a reason to believe why this accomplished, luminous Frenchwoman would want to spend so much time with the impish, socially inept Frank. Her performance stands in stark contrast to someone like Megan Duffy, who is saddled with ridiculously trite dialogue (“I wanted to slip into something more comfortable.”) and must have been goaded into acting in the most sexually aggressive (and unrealistic) way possible.
The unrealistic bombast on display in Duffy’s performance is present in other areas of the film. For example the manner in which Frank conducts himself during his hunting sprees stretches the audience’s goodwill and suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. His carelessness is obvious from the beginning of the film, where he displays little concern over leaving an obvious digital trail. This mindlessness is even more potent when Frank does some stalking in a post-9-11 transit hub (located smack dab in the center of LA). Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Law and Order would know that an area like this would be blanketed by cameras. Doing any criminal activity there would inevitably end with Chris Meloni’s manly hand around your throat, calling you a “Chicken-shit perp!”
Thankfully, the cinematography of DP Maxime Alexandre is powerful enough to compensate for the melodrama intrinsic to many scenes. Functioning as the “protagonist’s” eyes Alexandre’s camera captures LA as a blank slate, covered in unforgiving concrete, punctuated by monolithic skyscrapers. This environment is undeniably disturbing. The subtext it contains (regarding the mental state of Frank) is so potent that many of the more “dramatic” flourishes that Khalfoun shoves onto screen (such as visions Frank has of his dead mother) are not really necessary. The images of LA paired with Robin Coudert’s riveting electronic score suggest much more about Frank than any simplistic “mommy issues” that Khalfoun seems to insist on exploring.
This insistence is also morally questionable. It seems to imply that Wood’s loathsome Frank is little more than a product of bad parenting, and that he deserves an audience’s compassion. Thankfully however this tonal quality reverses itself with the film’s most inspired and interesting aesthetic choice. During certain murders the film’s camera moves out of the first-person, POV perspective of Frank into a more objective, third-person position. What this choice suggests is profound. It speaks to the nature of cinematic violence and insinuates how Frank sees himself during these moments and how we should see him. While Khalfoun and Co. seem to want to give us a dark ride inside the mind of a killer they also recognize that we must be able to see Frank for what he is, outside of his skin. He is a man but also a monster, worthy of our pity perhaps but certainly not our support or complicity.