The specters of two screen psychopaths hang heavily over Chapter 27: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Norman Bates in Psycho. They merely remind one that, when it comes to such characters, fiction is often far preferable to fact, especially when faced with this full-scale profile of John Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman.
There is something undeniably queasy about such a project, and you wonder exactly why it should have been done in the first place, aside from the chance for an actor to prove and strut his character-worthy stuff. However much objectivity the filmmakers try to bring to it, there is an inescapable element of glorification of thoroughly reprehensible characters, ironically giving them the last word with the fame they so desperately sought.
Like De Niro in Raging Bull, Leto piled on the pounds to obscure the considerable male beauty which made him such eminently right casting as the boy toy of no less than Colin Farrell’s Alexander the Great. Although I have issues with the drawlingly dilatory Southern choice of voice he employs, as I did with Daniel Day-Lewis’ John Huston imitation in There Will Be Blood, there’s no gainsaying his commitment and, yes, scary identification with the role. Just when you think you can bear no more of his woozy ramblings about The Catcher in the Rye, sinning New York homosexuals and the cruelty of urbanites, he powerfully breaks through on the night of the killing with a tortured, schizophrenic monologue in which he tries to talk himself out of the horrible deed, but is ultimately defeated by his terrifying desire to make John Lennon, in his own words, “mine.”
Leto’s performance is nearly undone by rookie director Jarrett Schaefer’s lousy, literal interpolations of spinning carousels, a field of waving rye, a child skipping on the street anachronistically singing, “If a body meets a body,” and other deadeningly obvious effects. At one point, Leto apes De Niro’s famous Taxi Driver “You talkin’ to me?” moment—by now possibly the most over-quoted scene in film history—and there are also Psycho rip-offs, with Leto staring directly into the camera, mad as a hatter, against a clinically white background. Not much really happens otherwise, and the nature of Chapman’s exact psychosis remains a mystery.
The murder itself is somewhat undermined by the casting of none-too-convincing replicas of Lennon and Yoko Ono, and one can only wonder about the real Ono’s reaction to the staging of this tragedy on the very steps of her home, The Dakota. Lindsay Lohan also pops up, and has a radiantly normal appeal, if somewhat too idealized, as a girl with nothing better to do than lurk around for Lennon.