To Catch a Killer: When Brian Dennehy became John Wayne Gacy

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Actor Brian Dennehy participates in Annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald, BGC and GFI at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Actor Brian Dennehy participates in Annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald, BGC and GFI at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald) /

In To Catch a Killer, the late Brian Dennehy inhabited the role of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, resulting in one of his most memorable performances.

There are a couple of things that stand out when I think of Brian Dennehy, who passed away on April 15 at the age of 81.

For one, that unmistakable physical presence. Built like a linebacker, he proved an imposing presence. But here was a precision to his smile, and the tilt of his brow housed a world of nuanced emotion.

The other was his delivery. For as intimidating as he could be, his characters always carefully calibrated their reactions, repressing god knows what before a proper expulsion of rage or violence.

My first experience watching Dennehy was the same as many others’: as Teasle, the small-town sheriff who harasses a recently-returned-from-Vietnam John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in 1982’s First Blood. The quickness with which Teasle’s “just joking” down-home persona escalates into something sinister – indeed, a reflection of his own personal sense of emasculation and futility – is stunning to behold.

In To Catch a Killer, the 1992 film that dramatizes the real-life crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Dennehy echoes his First Blood portrayal in certain regards.

To Catch a Killer
NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 28: Brian Dennehy stars in the hit new play “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” (which a different actor stars in each week) at The Westside Theatre on March 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/Getty Images) /

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sold on the idea of Dennehy playing this infamous character. The pictures I’d seen of Gacy always made him appear porcine and slovenly. By comparison, Dennehy always seemed clean-cut to a fault.

Director Eric Till is well aware of this, and brings out a surprising darkness from the actor. Gacy is a community pillar driven by ego (bragging about his achievements and volunteerism to anyone within earshot), and relishes the power he holds over others. When police Lieutenant Joe Kozenczak (Michael Riley) investigates the disappearance of a local boy and suspects Gacy’s responsible, the film becomes increasingly chilling.

With its 3-hour run time, To Catch a Killer places an emphasis on procedural detail that clearly influenced David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. Considering the heinous deeds that put Gacy on death row (he sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys), the manner in which Till (and writer Jud Kinberg) manage to repel with implication is impressive. Without showing much of anything at all, the film still manages to assimilate us into a diseased world.

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It’s fascinating to watch Dennehy’s depiction of a man who goes from a boorish paragon of control, flaunting his assumed immunity to the authorities in increasingly sickening ways, to the police-initiated paranoia that leads to his unraveling. Till, Kinberg, and Dennehy are careful not to paint Gacy as a victim; he comes across as a terrible person who’s played an active role in his own self-destruction. In the end, it’s our decision to change or maintain our life-path that determines our destiny.

There are several scenes that prove subtlety can better convey what graphic words or images cannot. Early on, Gacy stops at a gas station, eyeing up the young man filling the tank. He chats up the boy, attempting to lure him back to his house for a game of pool. Till lingers on a Silence of the Lambs-style shot of Gacy caressing the boy’s hand as he slips him a five-dollar bill. The nuanced physicality of this scene, combined with the boy’s repulsed expression and Gacy’s lecherous grin, sets a specific mood that’s revisited in a later scene.

Near the end of To Catch a Killer, Gacy successfully brings another young man back to his unassuming residential home. The older man ingratiates himself to the clearly uncomfortable younger man by performing a magic trick: removing handcuffs without a key. The tension of this scene, conveyed mostly through body language, is somehow heightened by the fact that Gacy is once again flaunting his sense of power, even with the knowledge that two cops are parked outside, waiting for him to slip up.

Here, Dennehy’s chilling manner reaches its apex: Till fixes on Gacy’s face, and it’s the visage of a man who’s been hypnotized by the temptation of his inner demons. Dennehy recedes into an unknown, subconscious place in these moments, to unsettling effect.

Unlike the seemingly endless string of direct-to-video serial-killer flicks that clogged the market in the early ’00s, To Catch a Killer doesn’t fabricate a backstory to ground the killer. Outside of several car chases and the incorporation of a psychic (Margot Kidder), the film resists the urge to lean on sensationalist, exploitative genre tropes. When we’re introduced to Gacy (the angel of death in a black jacket and ball cap), he’s already committed the bulk of his horrendous crimes.

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But perhaps the most stomach-churning scene involves Gacy lending his services as a party clown to a hospital children’s ward. He invites Kozenczak and a fellow officer to bear witness as he volunteers an unassuming teen to enact “the handcuff trick” while the little kids cheer. The image of Gacy in clown makeup is one of the most disturbing in serial-killer history. When the film started, I had trouble picturing Dennehy inhabiting the clown with the hidden agenda, and the brackish waters of the soul that compelled him to carry out his dark deeds.

But in this several-minute sequence, I believed wholeheartedly in Dennehy’s manifestation of the character. I was thoroughly horrified, and the moment in which he berates the cops while his back is turned to the expectant children, is a testament to Dennehy’s range – that ability to turn on a dime and maintain pitch-perfect credibility. Not many can pull off that caliber of acting, and To Catch a Killer is all the better because of his performance.

Next. The deadly 5: Serial killers on the silver screen to die for. dark

Have you seen To Catch a Killer? What is your favorite Brian Dennehy role?