-By Ethan Alter

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In the tradition of such brilliantly faked "documentaries" as Russ Hexter's Dadetown, Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver and, of course, The Blair Witch Project, comes Interview with the Assassin, the feature debut of commercial and music video director Neil Burger. Like those films, Assassin's effectiveness lies in the way it faithfully replicates documentary conventions without ever letting the audience in on the joke. Although the story occasionally grows too unbelievable for even the most die-hard conspiracy nut, star Raymond J. Barry always manages to ground the proceedings, lending an air of authority to the silliest plot twists. It's probably not an exaggeration to say that Barry's performance is the primary reason the independently financed Assassin made it into theatres at all. Without him, this film would simply be a stylish, but completely unbelievable, attempt at updating a lost sub-genre: the '70s paranoid thriller.

Barry began his career as a stage actor, eventually moving into film and television in the early 1970s; since then, he has appeared as a supporting player in everything from The Goodbye Girl to The X-Files (the latter is particularly appropriate considering his role here). Assassin, then, is his first real star turn and he tears into the part with gusto. Barry plays Walter Ohlinger, a sixtysomething ex-Marine with a mysterious past. One day he asks his next-door neighbor Ron (Dylan Haggerty), a news cameraman recently laid off from the local television station, to help him videotape a confession. What exactly is Walter's crime? "I was in Dallas on November 22, 1963," he tells his guest, "I was the second gunman."

Naturally, Ron is skeptical at first. But, out of curiosity or perhaps simple boredom, he decides to follow Walter around and see if the old man can prove his story. Their quest for the truth takes the duo across the country from Dallas, where Ron films Walter retracing his steps to his hiding spot behind the grassy knoll, to Norfolk, Virginia, the home of the man who supposedly enlisted Walter to kill Kennedy. The more time he spends with his subject, the more Ron buys into his descriptions of a vast government conspiracy safeguarded by ruthless secret agents. Soon the cameraman is equipping his own house with an expensive security system and sleeping with a loaded gun by his bed.

Assassin unfolds entirely from Ron's perspective and Burger does an excellent job convincing us we're watching actual events unfold before our eyes. The Dallas sequence is particularly well-shot; watching Walter stroll through Dealey Plaza, casually pointing out the exact spots where Oswald and then he fired at the President and even agreeing to take a photo with two tourists, you feel as though you could be watching one of your own home movies. There are a few scenes that are difficult to accept (I didn't believe that two strangers would be allowed to freely wander around the halls of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, press passes or no), but for the most part, the plot conforms very well to the cinema verit format Burger employs.

The drawback to a movie like this is that it's almost impossible to come up with a satisfying conclusion. Sure enough, Assassin's final moments are a letdown; unlike the Blair Witch guys, who wisely ended their film with an image that was as terrifying as it was inscrutable, Burger tacks on a conclusion that feels forced and, even worse, fictional. Still, the film is worth seeing if only for Barry's excellent performance. Walter may be just a product of Burger's imagination, but in the actor's hands he becomes all too chillingly real.

--Ethan Alter

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