Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) started a trend in popular cinema that leads directly to the many serial killer movies of today, ranging from such A-grade extravaganzas as Seven (1995) to a sea of Z grade exploitation flicks.
Perhaps the most dubious legacy bequeathed by Scorsese and his writer Paul Schrader to this burgeoning genre is a certain soft-edged, even romantic vagueness about such contemporary atrocity.
The disturbed killers of modern cinema are usually moody, solitary, sometimes even visionary souls – allowing a misty-eyed replay of old-fashioned existentialist ideas about disturbed outsiders and their excessive acts of rebellion.
This entire trend in movies is wildly and wilfully apolitical: it is not a society in crisis that creates such madmen but some subterranean, Nietzschean stirring of the individual's Soul and Will.
Francis von Zerneck's God's Lonely Man is in this questionable tradition. It is a conceptually lazy but undeniably intriguing exercise, focusing on the slow dissolution of Ernest (Michael Wyle), an ordinary guy in deep trouble.
Zerneck alternates deliberately low-key scenes of Ernest's everyday interactions with a range of characters and more expressionistic glimpses of his tortured binges on drugs and booze.
Much of it plays like a low-rent remake of Taxi Driver. There is a similar use of the anti-hero's voice-over narration; his ceaseless, aimless wanderings; and the tearing contradiction between his immersion in a sleazy, underworld milieu and his crazily noble, puritanical ideals.
Like Travis Bickle in Scorsese's film, Ernest has particular problems relating to women. On the one hand, he is driven by dark, perverse impulses he can neither understand nor master. On the other hand, he considers himself a saviour of fallen women – particularly young Christiane (Heather McComb) – and this messianic complex leads him to terrible acts of violence.
There are even moments when Wyle, in his gestures, postures, facial and verbal tics, seems to be mimicking Robert De Niro. Mostly, he gives a pleasingly restrained, compellingly watchable performance. (Curiously, his vacant, anaemic, nervy air reminds me of the behaviour and demeanour of many film buffs.) Wyle's interactions with McComb are the highlight of the film, even when these exchanges are over-written and under-directed.
This is Zerneck's directorial debut. When it stays simple, the film has a direct and admirable assurance. Its more florid and supposedly poetic passages are poorly handled. And by the time it reached the corny, predictable final frame, I wondered whether Zerneck was seriously interested in his subject matter at all – or if it merely allowed him a movie-fed, somewhat adolescent frisson, a sensation all too common in the serial killer genre.
© Adrian Martin June 1997