No one wants to sympathize with a serial killer, yet real life has shown us how often they charm their victims. Dominic West eerily walks that line between seductive and repellent in Sundance Channel’s sharp psychological thriller Appropriate Adult (a film premiering Saturday at 10 PM ET). West plays the real-life Fred West (happily for him, no relation) who tortured and killed at least a dozen women over more than a decade, including one of his own daughters. Sometimes he had an accomplice – his wife.
West’s crimes made him notorious in Britain but he’s unknown in the U.S., a difference that works to the film’s advantage. With a curly wig and jagged teeth, Dominic West is far from the solidly handsome rogues he has played in The Wire or The Hour. But he gives his character such earnestness when he claims to love his family, that his manner is not that of a monster either. He’s not Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, but some other, fresh horror in between.
His crimes are in the past when the films starts. It’s 1994, West is in police custody, and Janet Leach (Emily Watson) is the social worker brought in to protect his interests. In the British legal system, the "appropriate adult" is there during interrogations to guard a child’s welfare, or to make sure that an adult like West, with learning disabilities, can understand what is happening. Understand? As he matter-of-factly confesses lurid details to detectives, sometimes backtracks, takes them to fields where bodies are buried, and confides new crimes to Leach, the question becomes: how much is he lost in a crazy fog, how much is he manipulating her?
Leach has her own problems. Newly trained in her job, she has not been toughened to the presence of killers, but refuses to admit she may be floundering. And at home, her partner, the father of her four children, is bi-polar and has gone off his meds. Watson plays the role with soulful restraint (she has so much more to challenge her than she does as the stereotypical farm mother in War Horse). The film becomes a fraught dance between Fred West and Janet Leach.
He claims she is his only friend; she bristles, but is drawn into his story, and after her official role has ended, begins visiting him in prison so he can confess to more crimes. She tells herself this is for the peace of mind of the victims’ families, and at times she is thoroughly disgusted by what she hears -- women hanging upside down on hooks in the basement, corpses buried in parts in the garden – but she is also drawn into a relationship with the killer that she chooses not to examine. The film does not show us West’s violence; it lets us hear about it, sharing Leach’s horrified imagination, an effectively haunting strategy.
Director Julian Jarrold (much closer to his Red Riding mode than Brideshead or Becoming Jane) works at a calm, deliberate pace that draws us in. And he surrounds his stars with a terrifically solid supporting cast, including Sylvestra Le Touzel as a no-nonsense detective with possibly the biggest glasses and worst haircut in the history of women detectives, and Monica Dolan as Fred West’s wife and partner in evil. Appropriate Adult doesn’t create sympathy for a killer, but this chilling film, with two brilliant actors at their finest, compellingly displays his madness.
Here’s the extremely faithful trailer.