The question "Who killed Kennedy?" seems almost quaint in the panic and paranoia of this period post–September 11 and pre–Gulf War II. Prior to November 22, 1963, few of us entertained notions of a malignant conspiracy, or suspected that murderous, elusive powers behind the backdrop of history are the ones who’re running the show. Now everybody more or less suspects that if there is a truth out there, it’s not being told on the 6 o’clock news.
Despite arriving in the midst of this jaded X-Files atmosphere, first-time director Neil Burger’s fake documentary Interview with the Assassin maintains a creepy tension. That’s due more to veteran character actor Raymond J. Barry’s performance in the title role than to Burger’s own Blair Witch–style pseudo-vérité, which threatens at times to collapse into Waiting for Guffman–like farce. Barry’s invocation of banal evil endures, even though ultimately the film seems to disparage it. And it doesn’t arouse indignation at those who conceal the truth so much as it elicits pity, if not contempt, for those compelled to seek it out.
Barry brings a lethal, drawling detachment to his portrayal of Walter Ohlinger, a 62-year-old ex-Marine dying of cancer in a bleak San Bernardino suburb who approaches next-door neighbor Ron Kobelski (pudgy and pliable Dylan Haggerty), an unemployed cameraman with a daughter and a nagging wife, and discloses a desperate secret: he fired the shot that killed John Kennedy. As a lark, Ron takes Walter up on his claim and goes through the motions of interviewing him. "I figured he was a crank," he tells some other, as yet unidentified interviewer at the film’s beginning. "But I didn’t have a job. What the hell."
He finds out fast that idle cameras are the devil’s plaything as Walter takes charge, leading Ron from a safety-deposit box with a single cartridge casing to an X on the pavement in Dealey Plaza and then to a hospital room in DC. Together they pursue such leads as Walter’s beer-bellied fellow ex-Marine sniper Jimmy (real-life Bay of Pigs survivor Jared McVay) and the mysterious John Seymour, the man Walter claims gave him the orders to kill. Undaunted by the pot shots Walter takes at him during a target-shooting demonstration or the deflating testimony from Walter’s long-estranged wife, Ron gets drawn deeper and deeper into what’s either a second-rate Oliver Stone conspiracy or the labyrinthine twistings of a psychotic mind.
No doubt a desire to get the big story motivates him. But what compels Ron is the same thing that attracts the audience, the lure of forbidden knowledge and amoral power implied in Walter’s serpentine drawl, his sardonic, soul-dead eyes, and his surprisingly agile and intimidating body. Interview chills early on as Barry’s Walter re-creates his role in the assassination on location in Dallas; with steely insinuation he murmurs, "One twitch of my finger and the whole world was gonna change. And that’s what happened." At that point, it doesn’t seem to matter whether Walter’s a loser with megalomaniacal delusions or the loser who actually committed the crime. Perhaps that’s when Ron recognizes their bond: insignificance longing for meaning.
That bond deteriorates into a co-dependent relationship, with lots of squabbles shot from Ron’s camera as Walter drives to or from yet another instance of outrageous behavior and Ron whines from off camera, "Walter! What are you doing? Jesus!" They’re an existential odd couple, and neither can ditch the other because like the bums in Waiting for Godot, they’re all they’ve got. Neither does their plight evoke the kind of pathos and terror that we feel for another Everyman drawn into a web of paranoid conspiracy, Gene Hackman’s freelance surveillance expert in The Conversation. Burger’s tone wavers too much, and one starts to suspect that this interview is, as Ron declaims at one point, about nothing.
Or maybe it’s just an exercise in point of view and unreliable narration, not to mention that old stand-by, the nature of truth. Almost everything in the film is seen from Ron’s video camera (at times he gets fancy with a pair of glasses with a camera hidden inside, earning Walter’s deserved scorn). Some footage comes from the black-and-white surveillance cameras Ron sets up at home because Walter insists that "they’re coming to get us" (a repeated examination of a moving shadow in Ron’s back yard recalls Blow-Up but goes nowhere). But there’s also a framing device that suggests an omniscient observer, an interviewer of the interviewer of the assassin, and what that observer seems to be telling us, like the chorus in Oedipus, is that whatever the truth is, you really don’t want to know. Which is what those who benefit from keeping the truth a secret would like us to believe.