I’m still not sure why I appreciated Eastwood’s Changeling so much. I’m not too fond of the man as it were, and the film was rather poorly received. Still, I was impressed with it (it was my second review on the blog). I felt Jolie was deserving of the accolades she received, but if there was one part of the film I could have singled out alone it would have been Jason Butler Harner’s work as serial murderer Gordon Stewart Northcott. Everyone went wild in 2008 for dual villains in Milk and The Dark Knight and Harner’s Northcott would make it all a good threesome. It’s a slight performance, but one that haunts; and none more than his final scene – the hanging.
It begins with the shot from above as he descends.
I’ll admit, it looks generic enough as Northcott is led into the execution chamber by rhe officers.
But it’s the awareness on Harner’s face that always gets me.
The man has a way with expressions that’s most chilling. He’s a murderer, and yet he looks like a naughty schoolboy read to receive his punishment - one that you could feel sorry for.
Warden reads the charges, and really can we get any more clichéd than a hideous warden? The Grim Reaper I presume – but, alas, Eastwood never was one for subtlety.
But, back to Harner. I’m always moved to wonder just what the motive was behind his characterisation. It’s almost sad when he turns to the chaplain:
I kept clean after I confessed, Reverend…just like I said I would.
I think even the chaplain is a bit disconcerted, even if he nods resolutely. I wonder how Sarandon’s Helen Prejean would have dealt with this murderer.
Will it…will it hurt?
Harner delivers the line so randomly I always feel as if he’s adlibbing, which is a good thing. We don’t get a studied portrayal of a dying man, but an almost organic degradation.
Please…not so fast…don’t make me walk so fast.
It’s here that I really have to champion Eastwood. His penchant for overemphasis works brilliantly as we get that sense of foreboding. The walk up the steps (if you can call it a walk) is just so tense….and that shot of the rope…
Just seeing it gives me chills.
Thirteen steps…thirteen steps…but I didn’t touch all of ‘em, you bastards…I didn’t touch all of ‘em.
I always like to think that Northcott is getting delusional and is thinking of the steps as the murdered boys, but I’m always looking for subtext even when it’s not there. Still I start feeling a little bit sorry for him, I can’t explain what Nortchott’s motives were, but with Harner he manages to seem more than just a murderer.
He does look rather deranged, though.
…but still, ridiculous and pathetic.
A prayer! Please, somebody, say a prayer for me!
This shot is just chilling.
The executioner approaches the handle of the trapdoor as Northcott continues in what has to be the eeriest rendition of a Christmas tune.
Silent night…holy night…all is calm…all is bright…round yon virgin mother and child…holy infant so tender and mild…
Just what is Christine thinking?
Though I love her throughout, Jolie is at her lowest when dealing directly with Northcott. She’s unsure what to make of Christine’s reactions towards him (the script doesn’t help her any). I like the look there, though, what is she thinking? It's the sort of unreadable look that seems real.
We pause, and then the Grim Reaper decides to look at his watch.
What exactly is up with timing executions to the second? Will they be sued for digressions? And just then the trap door opens and the deed is done.
Few execution scenes manage to be so grisly and it depends mainly on the excellence of Harner. I cannot overemphasise how much this performance impresses me. I’d have given a nomination based on this scene only. What skill.