John Lennon’s Death Revisited Through the Words of His Killer
“I was nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on earth.”
Those are the boastful words of John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman (Jonas Ball), who shot Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, in front of his home at the Dakota, the Manhattan apartment complex at 72nd Street and Central Park West.
Everything Mr. Chapman says in “The Killing of John Lennon,” Andrew Piddington’s devastating re-enactment of events leading up to, including and immediately after the murder, is taken from interviews, depositions and court transcripts. Because much of the dialogue is voice-over, the film takes place largely inside Mr. Chapman’s feverish mind. Lennon appears in the movie but only briefly, and in shadow: a phantom to be slain.
Shot in a quasi-documentary style at the actual locations where the events took place, including the sidewalk outside the Dakota, the movie is extremely uncomfortable to watch. Using a minimum of photographic tricks, it evokes episodes of mental disorientation in which images jiggle and blur into one another. Its fragments from the movies “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “Ordinary People” suggest the volatile interaction of popular culture and mental instability. And its sampling of vintage clips of the Beatles and of Lennon is heartbreaking.
Although “The Killing of John Lennon” doesn’t ask you to sympathize with Mr. Chapman, who is now serving a 20-year-to-life sentence in Attica state prison, it requires you to spend nearly two hours in his disturbing company. That’s asking a lot. Grandiose, narcissistic, subject to delusions and extreme mood swings, he comes across as the kind of maniacally self-centered creep who, if encountered in a bar, would prompt most people to disengage after five minutes of small talk.
Listening to him gas on about his twisted obsession with “The Catcher in the Rye” and his identification with its troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is torture. That J. D. Salinger novel set off the sort of brainstorm in Mr. Chapman that some evangelical Christians have described as their reaction to encountering a Bible on the eve of conversion.
Encountered by Mr. Chapman when he was “searching for some kind of guidance,” the book became “an electric current in my hand, burning my body,” he recalls. From then on, Mr. Chapman began confusing himself with Caulfield, often signing the character’s name instead of his own and in the courtroom quoting passages from the book as if they were Scripture.
As evidence of Lennon’s phoniness, Mr. Chapman cites the lyrics of “Imagine” (“Imagine no possessions”), then enumerates that star’s properties.
The film begins in Honolulu, where Mr. Chapman lived with his Japanese-American wife, Gloria (Mie Omori), and worked as a security guard (a job he quit) in the months before his first visit to New York City in October 1980. In Honolulu he complains of severe headaches and of difficulty eating and sleeping. We meet his mother (Krisha Fairchild), a blowsy blonde with a Southern accent whom he describes as a character out of “The Glass Menagerie.”
During his initial visit to New York, when he discovers that Lennon is away, he sees the movie “Ordinary People,” which temporarily dissuades him from his mission. “My rage was defeated,” he declares proudly. “The volcano was capped.” But not for long.
I’ve met enough desperate hangers-on in the pop music world who resemble the loser portrayed by Mr. Ball to recognize him as a classic celebrity stalker seeking fame by association. The difference between Mr. Chapman and thousands of others is that in his case, a screw came loose in his mind. Mr. Ball, who is somewhat better-looking than photographs of Mr. Chapman but of the same physical type, captures the tiniest nuances of obsequiousness and cunning that such people exhibit. In Mr. Chapman’s case the precarious balance between adoration and envy tilted lethally toward the negative.
Describing his feelings during the killing, he says: “There was no emotion, no anger. There was dead silence in my brain.”
Afterward, when a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital Center asks why he did it, Mr. Chapman replies: “Because I thought he was a phony. I actually loved his music.”
If “The Killing of John Lennon” is a well-made film, it is also a total bummer.
THE KILLING OF JOHN LENNON
Opens in Manhattan on Wednesday.
Written and directed by Andrew Piddington; director of photography, Roger Eaton; edited by Tony Palmer; music by Makana; production designer, Tora Peterson; produced by Rakha Singh; released by IFC Films. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Jonas Ball (Mark David Chapman), Krisha Fairchild (Mr. Chapman’s mother), Mie Omori (Gloria Chapman) and Robert Kirk (Detective John Sullivan).