It’s 1982 in the Soviet Union and a collection of murdered bodies have been unearthed from the woods. Newly appointed forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) is both shocked and horrified when he realizes all these bodies are murder victims. They have all been sexually assaulted, killed, mutilated and disposed of in the same area. They clearly died by the hands of a serial killer – the first ever in the Soviet Union.
Burakov is put in charge of the investigation and to capture this killer. However, the Soviet bureaucracy becomes as much of a hurdle to overcome as attempting to catch this murderer. The government denies Bruakov the necessary requests he needs for his investigation, mainly due to the risk of the Soviet Union looking weak if they publicly admit there is a serial killer on the loose and there is a danger to its citizens.
Burakov becomes obsessed with stopping the murders and frustrated with the restrictions officials are placing on him. He has one ally in the government, Colonel Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) who understands the importance of solving this case and how to navigate the rules of the government to get things done.
It is only until the fall of the Soviet Union, when the rules loosen enough that progress gets made and leads to the capture of the murderer Andrei Chikatilo (Jeffrey DeMunn). More than a decade after his first murder, the killings end. In total he will have killed 53 victims, most under the age of 17, murders that could have been prevented had the importance of solving the case had been as high a priority to the government as it was to Burakov.
Citizen X is based on the true story of the trial killer Chikatilo. Yet, the film is less focused on the horrors this serial killer committed and his victims and more on the the tenacity and unwavering efforts Bruakov showed in the face of the consistent opposition he battled by his own government towards the murder investigation.
Bruakov is immediately in over his head and is ill prepared for what has been thrust upon him. Not only has he no to little experience being a criminal investigator, but he receives no help from his superiors. They have their own narrative they wish to weave regarding these murders. They don’t want to listen to logic or the evidence he acquires, which becomes maddening for Bruakov.
Despite Bruakov tenaciously working, piecing together clues as to the best way to catch this killer and making rational requests to prevent future murders, if it conflicts with the powerful image of the Soviet Union, it’s dismissed off hand. The Soviet officials are emotionless blocks whose only interest is protecting themselves, no matter how many more people are killed.
These senseless obstructions Bruakov has to deal with become just as horrible to watch as the murders committed by Chikatilo. It’s the inane decisions made by those in charge that consistently hinder the investigation and waste precious time. Joss Ackland (who you’ll recognize as the bad guy in Lethal Weapon 2, the guy really knew how to play creeps), appears to be just as villainous as the murderer.
As Secretary of Ideology, he’s practically an accomplice covering for Chikatilo, as he brushes aside plausible routes to go about tracking the murderer down. Such seemingly obvious paths that could be taken are sidetracked for meaningless theories that will fit the narrative of Soviet Russia. Officials are convinced the murderer is a homosexual, that the murders are committed by gangs, they’re resistant to stake out train stations, where it looks to be the killers preying ground.
Scenes of Rea trying to reason with officials play out as helpless pleas. Burakov becomes resigned that the situation working under their procedures will not move the investigation forward, but more likely lead to more victims. Rea plays a completely defeated investigator, who solemnly accepts the inevitability of more innocents murdered because of them.
It’s clear the government doesn’t care about the victims or are bothered by the likelihood of more to come. What is paramount to them is protecting the image of the state, no matter how much blood spills in order to do that. It’s frustrating to watch and see Bruakov getting emotionally eaten away by the pointlessness of the system he’s forced to work in.
It’s in very much a similar way as HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series portrayed the Soviet Union during this period. Stubborn, unforgiving, willing to ignore clear dangers and allowing their citizens suffer to preserve the blindly absurd perfect image they wanted to maintain. It’s quite maddening to see.
Chikatilo is more of a supporting player in the film. We see brief scenes of his homelife, his work and of course some of the killings. They’re grisly acts and it reinforces not only the horrors of them, but also how criminal it was what little was done to stop them. It’s disgraceful to witness how much sooner Chikatilo could have been caught had it not been for the stubbornness of the government.
DeMunn manages to be both pathetic and frightening as Chikatilo. He’s the man this story centers around and he gives a terrific memorable performance as the killer. DeMunn would later go on to star in more high profile projects, but this is a role I always associate him with, he’s that good in it.
Max Von Sydow is a psychologist who helps Burakov make a profile of the killer, who he dubs ‘Citizen X’. He brings his memorable gravitas and distinctive voice to a small part and provides a pivotal scene.
It’s not a showy crime drama. There’s not much in the way of forensic science on display, mainly because it didn’t exist at the time. Even Burakov requesting the help of the more experienced U.S. FBI is fruitless and is immediately turned down. It was out of the question to ask assistance from the United States. Burakov is on his own, trying to catch the killer with what little tools he’s provided.
The majority of the movie is spent on Burakov and Festisov who over time gain a mutual respect, and something of a friendship, during this ordeal. They are both after the same goal, however Festisov is more knowledgable as to how to manipulate the restrictions that are placed on them. Burakov is more emotional and feeling defeated most of the time. They form an interesting partnership and become the ones fighting on the opposite side of the table against the government, trying to chip away at its stubbornness to finally end these murders.
The settings are damp, grey, there’s a depressing air the way the story is presented. There’s barely any color in it. I suppose it’s a pretty standard way the Soviet Union is dramatized in films and how we think of it. With this story it should be a distressing experience to watch and it is.
It’s a very good film. I watched it when it first premiered and it’s stuck with me since. I’ve rewatched it several times over the years and it holds up remarkably well. With the surge of real crime documentaries and movies about serial killers that have become so popular, Citizen X stands out.
Although it might be a bit ‘older’ and not as flashy as more recent films about serial killers are, it’s a very compelling movie. A killer being able to evade capture not from planning or luck, but from the sheer arrogance of a government to protect itself rather than its citizens. It’s shameful.