When films turn serial killers into pop icons, they trivialize not only the idea of murder, but also of monsters. Once we can quantify a monster as representing evil, we distance ourselves from this representation and can pat ourselves on the back for embodying goodness. But are those monstrous qualities really that far away from us? Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer doesn’t so much bring us closer to the serial murderer; it reminds us of our culpability as spectators. Rather than the vicarious thrills of a hack-and-slash thriller, John McNaughton’s film rubs our noses in the lack of empathy required to do harm to others. Evil, then, becomes the absence of a conscience—the lack of foresight to see that one is doing harm. No doubt, that realization would be shattering, but the character of Henry (Michael Rooker) is never arrives at that catharsis. And that’s hopefully what separates him from us.
The low budget the filmmakers had to work with clearly contributed to the film’s spare, minimalist look; the flat lighting schemes and naturalistic Chicago setting ground this brutal endeavor in reality. As played by Rooker in his breakthrough role, Henry is a shambling, quiet, soft-spoken loner with a warped sense of integrity. He speaks about killing as if it were his God-given right, unquestioning and sincere. This charismatic sense of self attracts Becky (Tracy Arnold), the sister of Henry’s dim-witted ex-convict friend, Otis (Tom Towles). Even as we hope her sincere, if misguided, attraction to Henry will lead him down a path of redemption, the road the film travels is so rigorously downbeat one quickly gets the sense there’s no hope for anyone here.
The film’s opening details Henry’s sojourns into coffee shops and shopping malls; scenes of him driving around the slushy winter streets of Chicago are intercut with lingering “still life” images of the corpses he’s left in his wake. But the sequence is a deranged parody of art, as the bodies are presented in their full and unadorned, wretched lifelessness. When Henry moves in with Otis and Becky, we already fully comprehend what he’s capable of, yet when Henry delivers his confessional to Becky about how he killed his mother, it arouses a certain pathos. A foolish pathos, as it turns out. One quickly picks up on Henry’s inability to sort truth from memory: He starts off claiming that he shot his mother, then claims he stabbed her, and when Becky calls him out on his inconsistencies, all he can do is mutter, “Yeah, that’s right. I shot her.”
As Henry brings on Otis as his gleeful accomplice, the film builds compelling scenes about our relationship to violence: The obnoxious stolen TV salesman “deserves” to be killed because he’s rude, whereas later in the film the husband, wife, and child killed during a home invasion “don’t deserve it” because they’re presented as more sympathetic. McNaughton has made note of how he wanted audiences to start asking themselves why they’re watching the film. Indeed, Portrait of a Serial Killer could be taken as a feel-bad creep show about bad men and their unfortunate victims. But it has something more revealing as its theme: our desire to see only the perceived best parts in ourselves—and our inability to see when we are destroying those around us. As an emotional map, the film is decidedly raw, personal, and unrelenting.