Bill Friedkin and Bill Clinton may not have noticed, but the death penalty has been abolished by all Western democracies save one, by the modern countries of the Orient, and by the newly minted republics of the former Soviet Union. That leaves China, Iran, assorted Third World dictatorships, and the United States as the only nations that still execute certain of their criminals.
The debate over capital punishment continues, of course, although at a lower volume than that around the time Gary Gilmore went before a Utah firing squad in 1977, thus resuming execution in America. The mainspring issues -- victims' rights, the insanity defense, racial bigotry in the courts, disparities in the quality of legal representation, the agendas of expert medical witnesses, the value of deterrence versus vengeance, and the most "humane" (read: least messy) method of killing our killers -- have given way to more spirited public wrangles about AIDS and abortion. Meanwhile, nearly 2600 inmates sit on Death Row in 38 death-penalty states, waiting to take the long walk. Executioners in the South's Eye-for-an-Eye Belt remain the most efficient and punctual: Texas has fallen head-over-heels for lethal injection, and zap-happy Florida might do well to replace its busy electric chair with electric bleachers.
Inspired by the headlines, Exorcist and Cruising director William Friedkin completed Rampage back in 1987, but its release was delayed for five years while Dino DeLaurentis's production company went through some stays of execution itself. Little matter. Here we have it -- a curiously cool, detached drama about a young serial killer's crimes, capture, and trial that selects its death-penalty issues with care before quietly, soberly endorsing use of the gas chamber in sunny California.
By his own acknowledgement, Friedkin likes to hang around the station house looking for law enforcement heroes like The French Connection's Popeye Doyle. So the director was naturally drawn to a novel called Rampage, written by former Sacramento District Attorney William P. Wood. It's one of those mutant works -- a fictional compendium of what the author calls "several real life cases" -- but it's based largely on Sacramento's notorious "vampire killer," Richard Chase, a Jeffrey Dahmer type who slaughtered half a dozen people in two attacks, then explained to his captors that Satan was poisoning his blood, the Nazis were after him, and and he needed to drink fresh blood for survival. Insane? That depended on who you asked about insanity. In any case, D.A. Wood prosecuted the case before turning crime fictioneer.
Friedkin's movie is so self-consciously thoughtful and ideologically balanced that it's often difficult to know whether he set out to make a thriller or an instructional video: Certainly, it contains few of the gory sensations of the Exorcist, and it lacks the sheer tension of his masterful remake of The Wages of Fear -- a forgotten gem called Sorcerer. Dogged and deliberate, Rampage concentrates on courtroom definitions, the motives of a defense psychiatrist trying to cover his own misstep, and the misgivings of a young assistant D.A. (Michael Beihn) who sets aside his liberal social beliefs to seek the death penalty in court. For much of its length, the movie feels as dry as a legal brief. But one gift never deserts Friedkin: He's a born storyteller, and Rampage proceeds with the inevitability of a bad dream even when it's busy educating us.
As for the killer, "Charles Reece" (newcomer Alex MacArthur), we get a glimpse of his cold-bloodedness as the former mental patient stalks a middle-class neighborhood with a hundred-dollar pistol in his red parka. What we don't get is much sense of where his disorder came from, aside from a few hints about an abusive father and a visit to the home of his defeated mom (Grace Zabriskie). Friedkin focuses more directly on the young D.A., who's lost a child of his own, and the father (Royce D. Applegate) and young son (Whitby Hertford), who were at the dentist when their family was murdered.
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Rampage is a virtual catalogue of psychological stresses, thorny legal arguments, and ethical dilemmas. It sees the high-tech brain scan that finally gets Charlie Reece's verdict reversed as a legal/medical gimmick, and in the end it tries hard to scare us with the possibility of the killer's parole.
Fine. But could Wood and Friedkin have put together as strong a legal argument had they chosen, for instance, a black killer represented by a bad lawyer facing an all-white jury? Say what you will about the efficacy or the justice of the death penalty: It still remains a kind of racial lottery in which minorities are scandalously overrepresented -- particularly when their victims are white. The remorseless white killer whom Friedkin examines here may indeed deserve the gas chamber, if anyone does, but he does not constitute a good categorical argument for capital punishment. That message could be lost on audiences more interested in Old Testament generalities than specific cases. Friedkin takes pains to build his case dispassionately, but the Avenging Angel in him speaks louder than the rationalist.
Screenplay by William Friedkin, from a novel by William P. Wood; directed by William Friedkin; with Michael Biehn, Alex McArthur, Nicholas Campbell, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and Grace Zabriskie.