Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 21 August 2006
Source Magnolia Pictures VHS
Were we to believe in an amazing coincidence of derangement: that a sullen little man, for his own twisted reasons, could kill a President and then, while in police custody, himself be killed by another little man with his twisted reasons?
—The Warren Report
Interview with the Assassin is director Neil Burger’s fake, disturbing documentary about the death of John F. Kennedy. Told almost entirely through the hand-held perspective of a news cameraman named Ron Kobeleski, the 83-minute film focuses on a retired Marine named Walter Ohlinger. Now living in suburban seclusion, Ohlinger recruits neighbor Ron to tape a disquieting confession: “I was in Dallas on November 22, 1963,” he says into the camera; “Does that mean anything to you?” Ohlinger, we discover, was the speculated second gunman, the shooter on the grassy knoll. For more than thirty years he’s kept his transgression a secret, living in anonymity while those who conspired with him were eliminated. What follows is a bizarre and often startling series of cross-country excursions that intensifies as, one by one, Ohlinger offers his new friend questionable clues to verify his assertion.
Richard Rutkowski’s haunting cinematography, attributable to the hand-held camera’s inherently natural, vérité quality, adds a crude intimacy to the story. Rather than a detached portrayal, Rutkowski and Burger create portraits more reminiscent of home movies or, dare I say, the Zapruder film. The scenes are gritty, unstable, and at times indiscernible. Relying almost solely on diegetic lighting — the jaundiced deserts of Texas, the ominous blue glow of hospital corridors — and actual locations, each scene is potently dramatic. In one instance, the character of Ohlinger stands mere yards from an X at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where his bullet entered the head of President Kennedy. Not only is the scene jarring — the assassin returning to the scene of his crime, then lecturing openly on the infamous occurrence — but also real, filmed on location.
Raymond J. Barry’s portrayal of Walter Ohlinger is one of unnerving confidence. Inexpressive and regularly hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, Ohlinger is knowledgeable, uncompromising, and absolute; dying of cancer, he’s steadfast in his mission but does not hesitate to inflict vengeance on those who wrong him. A cop is beaten; a reporter disappears; John Seymour, Ohlinger’s old Marine commander, slips into death off-camera, perhaps another one of Ohlinger’s victims. And as the story builds, his claim repeatedly comes into question. Ohlinger’s ex-wife, noting her former husband’s dire psychological ailments, seems beleaguered by her past while dismissing Ron’s assertions. The truth is never known.
With hints of influence from Man Bites Dog, Burger’s creation eerily and accurately resembles a legitimate documentary. Where others, such as the aforementioned Belvaux film, are identifiably sardonic, Interview with the Assassin doesn’t attempt to replicate style for the sake of subjectivity or humor. This is not a political statement, nor an endorsement of any conspiracy theory. Uncomfortable in its gravity and disturbing in its plausibility, the film weaves an acute mix of anger and paranoia while remaining loyal to its objective: creating a film that’s both complex and fascinating, an examination of the uncertainty of history and desperation of character.
Regrettably, Burger’s investment in treading the line between implausibility and authenticity overtakes the story’s final third. Though thoroughly appropriate for Ohlinger’s uncertain disposition, there’s an air of ridiculousness to his final plan, and the subsequent confrontation between him and Ron doesn’t play out with the intensity and believability it should. When the film concludes, we’re offered updates on characters and Ohlinger’s “evidence”—a device designed to add a more realistic feel. Instead, it imposes yet another fatuous convention on an until-then original screenplay.