by ALEX CARNEVALE
There are many popular and infamous criminals in American history, but they usually become popular after the fact. When the real-life "hero" of the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor comedy I Love Philip Morris, con artist Steven Jay Russell, steals millions from a company and escapes prison multiple times, we do feel a vague thrill. Despite our enjoyment of the way he flaunts authority, it's hard not to identify domestic economic instability with thievery. It may be fun to watch someone escape from prison, or even vicariously exciting, but there might as well be a calculator in the corner of the screen tallying up the cost to taxpayers.
In France, there is no such problem. The release of Jean-Francois Richet's magnificent two part film Mesrine in the United States, a four hour epic about the Paris-born thief and killer Jacques Mesrine proves this. Not since Jean Valjean was it so obvious that civil disobedience was not only an acceptable part of being French, but increasingly essential to it. Portrayed by the incredibly charismatic Vincent Cassel in a performance that makes Scarface look like an afterschool special, the Jacques Mesrine of Mesrine is so much more raw fun than his equally wonderful American counterparts.
France is currently enduring a period of civil unrest because of the prospect of the retirement age rising from 60 to 62. (They are evidently unaware that most people live thirty or forty years beyond this date.) Since living off the government is a more accepted and pervasive way of life over there, the fact that the magnetic Jacques Mesrine robbed banks and escaped from prison is in some sense just another in-house quarrel, like debating a thorny topic with your dad.
When Mesrine comes home from Algeria in the first part of the biopic, Death Instinct, he rips on his own father for collaborating with the Germans and explains his turn to a life of crime as a revenge act. Later on, he justifies returning to a prison he had earlier escaped from with automatic weapons as an expression of his discontent with the abuses of the prison system. L'Instinct de Mort, Mesrine's autobiography written from prison, describes his life story and how being an insane madman is actually a rational act. Richet's overly violent masterpiece in two parts is the most exciting film ever created by someone who idolized Michael Mann's Heat.
The reason that a criminal (or the idea of one) is a remedy to societal malaise and not simply a symptom is because although a utopia would have no criminals, the fact that it would be impossible to defy the ruling power means that world would be no utopia. Still, we can hope for a better class of criminal. The fact that America has a bad, but not quite as bad, a system as France is morbidly clear from the fifth season of Showtime's Dexter. Its protagonist and hero is a police officer and serial killer of other killers: Dexter Morgan almost never punishes a crime other than murder, perhaps because it is his own crime.
The action takes place in a version of Miami unrecognizable to most of us. The show itself is shot in Los Angeles, and it's hard but not impossible to mistake the two places for each other. Dexter's Miami looks like Los Angeles but feels entirely like a small town. The show's transitions are the most transparent in television, staging banal sets and exteriors that remind us that this is not really our country, just a place that with similar detailing. It makes more sense to surround a fantasy with other cardboard reproductions of reality that are as difficult to believe.
Miami is one of the poorest cities in America, yet the Miami metro homicide unit has rarely processed a case involving a Hispanic or African-American until this season. Although the head of the division is a Latina, she is one real note in a litany of intentionally false ones.
Instead of prosecuting the guilty through his own offices, Dexter hunts them down. He is not great at doing this; he isn't terribly wonderful at even using the internet. The Jeff Lindsay novels Dexter is based on take place in the typical thriller-neverworld, where it's still 1986 and no one is capable of using a computer at a speed other than grandma. Most crimes can't even be committed with all the technology we have now, and fewer killers escape justice. In Dexter's world, they do, at least for awhile.
State cold case units have solved many murders that were assumed to remain unsolved, and only the Civil Rights era, the Department of Justice declared this summer, will still have unsolved crimes. Take the case of America's so-called first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Holmes opened a hotel which became known as his Castle. Like Dexter, he thrived on elaborate ritual:
The victims' bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack.
One of the major motivations for murder in those days was finding someone who had money, changing their will to make yourself the beneficiary, and then offing the person. This doesn't happen nearly as often now. Dexter has no such amateur motive, and we approve of progress.
Occasionally, we find that one of Dexter's victims may not be quite as guilty as they appear. (His own personal burden of proof is rather low.) He does attempt some cursory research, and usually wants to meet the target under an alias before going through with the murder. It's impossible not to become increasingly sympathetic to Dexter's victims — after all, we are forced to justify Dexter's murders, and the slope of blame becomes increasingly slippery. Dexter is forgiven because he witnessed a disturbing crime as a child; other murderers can offer similar excuses. To avoid this problem, the writers conceive Dexter's targets as the wealthy white residents of Miami.
Dexter puts aside one of the basic facts about homicides committed in urban areas. As Heather Mac Donald recently noted, "In Chicago, blacks, at least 35 percent of the population, commit 76 percent of all homicides; whites, about 28 percent of the population, commit 4 percent. In New York City, blacks, 24 percent of the population, commit 80 percent of all shootings; whites, 35 percent of the population, commit less than 2 percent of all shootings." Were Dexter to start avenging violence in impoverished minority communities, we'd feel a lot less sympathetic towards him than if he killed John Lithgow all over again.
Recently, it just occurred to someone for the first time to ask Dexter's sister Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), his fellow officer, why she doesn't speak Spanish. She answered, "I'm too busy doing my job." Dexter's preference for killing white murderers comes from this prejudice. How can he explain what he's doing to someone who doesn't understand English?
Nor does Dexter simply eliminate the murderer from the population. He blows up large glossy photographs of their victims to show them. Did he think they'd forget? (It is never really explored who he gets to develop these glamour shots of his victims.) His first move is always to sedate the victim with a needle, an extremely dangerous tactic. Last episode, the man he tried this on turned and shot him with a tranquilizer gun. They rode together in an ambulance to the hospital. Apparently no one with a brain was at the scene.
Dexter's victims rarely argue with him. The contradiction in his own behavior isn't obvious — they never address him as a murderer. Wrapped in duct tape, preparing to be stabbed, they must think they are in some kind of otherworldly torture, or that they are already dead.
Certainly a part of Dexter longs to be caught, which is true of most people for whom crime is a compulsion, not a necessity. Jacques Mesrine wished to be caught so much that even after escaping to Venezuela, he returned against to France and continued his armed robberies. For Mesrine, the fact that he will be caught is an essential part of him; for Dexter, it is a reality he respects but does not desire. From this can we conclude it is more important to America that it survive healthy and well than the region of Gaul?
There is always someone on the show at any given time who is on Dexter's trail, but that person never confronts Dexter in front of other people. Even though his wife (Julie Benz) was murdered by another killer, the FBI never made much of Dexter's admission that "I killed her." Currently Detective Quinn (Gossip Girl's Desmond Harrington) has painstakingly uncovered pieces of Dexter's secret, but he seems baffled by just what to do about it.
Julia Stiles and Jonny Lee Miller have been appointed to fill the gaping hole of Benz's departure from the show. Stiles plays Lumen, a woman abducted by one of Dexter's targets who accidentally witnesses him killing her captor. Instead of being grateful and writing a thank you note, she runs for it. He is surprised that she understands so quickly that is a monster too, and feels seen.
Most of the pleasure of Dexter comes from dramatic irony. We know what he is, but no one else does, even though it seems like there are plenty of reasons for people to be weirded out by a creepy blood-spatter expert. Instead, everyone in his life is incredibly supportive, with one key exception — is his now-dead wife's daughter Astor, who apparently intuits just how dangerous he is and demands to live with her grandparents.
It is fitting that Dexter hasn't inspired a copycat and I doubt he ever will. There are a million wannabe Mesrines; the life of a gangster is inescapably dangerous but both fun and profitable. Ritualistic revenge murder, especially when the revenge is not exactly your own, doesn't have the same appeal. America permits criminals to exist, even spends billions to house and feed them, but it does this not because it loves criminals, but because it hates them. Isn't it at least possible that every time the government spends money to house and feed someone, it is for this same reason?
"Stratosphere" - Digitalism (mp3)
"Blitz" - Digitalism (mp3)
"Blitz (Harvard Bass remix)" - Digitalism (mp3)