Film & Television

‘The Alienist’: a gripping but imperfect thriller

By Harry Windsor

Forensic psychology powers this lavish series, but is one of its less interesting features

You can see why Curtis Hanson wanted to make The Alienist, back when Paramount was trying to turn it into a film in the 1990s. Like L.A. Confidential, Hanson’s most acclaimed film, it’s an ensemble piece about detectives forced to operate outside of a corrupt police department in order to find a murderer. Netflix’s 10-part adaptation of Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel even duplicates a mordant scene from Hanson’s classic, in which a crooked cop is posthumously commended for valour at city hall. What sets The Alienist apart is its setting, 1896 New York, as well as its interest in children and the damage adults do to them. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” might as well be its tagline.

The book’s narrator is John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times and a soak who spends his nights in Bowery brothels after an abortive engagement. As played by Luke Evans in the series, Moore is an illustrator rather than a hack, and the story begins with his being summoned to a still-under-construction Williamsburg Bridge, where a boy prostitute has been murdered and gruesomely mutilated. Moore is there to draw the corpse at the behest of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an old Harvard friend and the alienist of the title: an expert on the mentally ill, who were considered “alienated” from themselves. Kreizler is the son of German émigrés, and he’s played by Daniel Brühl with a suitably indeterminate accent. The doctor is convinced there’s a connection between the murder and that of a former patient years before, and the two friends begin chasing clues.

Carr’s 2005 novel The Italian Secretary was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and the relationship at the centre of The Alienist owes more than a little to Conan Doyle. Moore is loyal and long suffering, while Kreizler is imperious and button pushing. Their investigation has the tacit support of another old Harvard chum, Teddy Roosevelt (a wildly miscast Brian Geraghty), the then-police commissioner, who loans them his secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and two young detectives, Jewish brothers Marcus and Lucius, who are versed in new-fangled forensic techniques such as fingerprinting. Roosevelt’s reformist agenda has put him at odds with his predecessor, Thomas Byrnes (Ted Levine), and the cops in the department still loyal to their former boss seem intent on obstructing the investigation.

This is the kind of thing Netflix does well. The filmmakers built 10 blocks of 19th-century New York in Budapest, and the breadth is immersive, with everything from Delmonico’s to the Metropolitan Opera to Lower East Side tenements rendered in lavishly budgeted detail. The writers include Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), E. Max Frye (Something Wild), Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and John Sayles (Lone Star), and the directors include veterans of series such as Black Mirror and The Fall. A couple of them also directed episodes of Penny Dreadful, another show with a pungent atmosphere of gas-lamp dread and a ragtag family at its centre.

That series riffed on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897, a year after this one is set. As with shows such as The Knick, the turn of the century provides a chance to glimpse the modern world coming into being. The Alienist touches on women’s rights, the birth of psychology, the end of the frontier and the rise of socialism, with New York as the original melting pot. The killer targets poor “boy whores”, often immigrants, and race and class intersect even in Kreizler’s own home. As in Penny Dreadful, a black manservant with a violent past waits on white masters, and the series has made Mary, a former patient employed by Kreizler as a domestic servant, a Native American (she’s played by The New World’s Q’orianka Kilcher). One scene sees Kreizler’s paternalism explicitly called out by the manservant’s niece, in what feels like a retrofit inserted by the writers to cover their backs.

The show’s credit sequence, set to an ominous soundscape of industrial groans – a ship’s horn folding into the chug of a departing steam train – cycles through images of the city’s buildings, which disassemble before our eyes. The precariousness of what’s been built is uppermost in the mind of former commissioner Byrnes, whose obstructionism is motivated by survival: “we serve the rich, and in return they raise us above the primordial filth.” The barbarity on which the nation was built, and specifically the legacy of the West, proves the key to unlocking the killer’s identity, with scalping being one of his trademarks. The way in which Kreizler tries to find the killer via psychological profiling seems to me less interesting, for some of the same reasons that BBC One’s Sherlock palled. In a scene that feels like a magical shortcut, the doctor has a psychic moment in which he inhabits the killer’s point of view, and when he lies down on a bench in the man’s lair, he hears voices. The fact that his thesis is wrong – “it proves we don’t know anything; God works between the lines” – is finally both honest and unsatisfying.

What unites our heroes and the man they’re chasing is childhood trauma. Kreizler has even published a monograph titled The Harm We Do to Our Children Is Revisited on Ourselves, though he has no compunction in using his young ward, Stevie, as bait. The killer bonds with his victims through a shared hatred of parents, while Kreizler and Moore are both estranged from theirs, and Sara is hiding a secret about her father’s death. Mothers are particularly ogreish, with Sean Young popping up as the overly affectionate parent of a wealthy suspect, in a vivid subplot that runs out of puff halfway through.

The focus on the child allows the show to gesture at ideas about determinism, while its formal choices have a gimlet-eyed wit: witness a fade from three urchins huddled together in the street to a high-society gala hosted by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The filmmaking also places the viewer in the shoes of the killer, whose ability to climb buildings and traverse rooftops makes him seem almost supernatural. The camera mimics his dexterity and seeming omniscience, gliding over rooftops and bathhouse stalls or craning down from tenements to survey the street. This kind of level-changing is sometimes replaced by ghostly point-of-view shots; we watch from the angle of an upstairs window as our heroes approach the killer’s home, and there’s even a shot of him on a rooftop, looking out over the city, familiar from so many Batman movies – only this wounded child-turned-vigilante slakes his anger by butchering kids.

The final confrontation is presaged by a performance of Don Giovanni at the Met, the title character dragged down to hell by demons. But The Alienist’s sympathy for its own remorseless demon never wavers, and what follows dangles the possibility of both ascension and purification. Assuming the name of John the Baptist as well as that of the man who abused him, the killer combines the roles of cleanser and tormentor. He promises to take his marks to a “castle in the sky”, usually dismembering them at elevation. And he’s careful to leave their bodies close to water, after committing what he views, perhaps, as acts of liberation. “I baptise you with water, but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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