Jared Leto Expands in Grim Role of Lennon’s Killer

Running Time 84 minutes
Written and Directed by J. P. Schaefer
Starring Jared Leto and Lindsay Lohan

On the fateful, moonless night of Dec. 8, 1980, in an act of insanity that jolted the world, John Lennon was brutally and senselessly gunned down in the entrance of the Dakota, a famous apartment building on the edge of Central Park in New York City. I know something about this. I live there. I was home that night addressing Christmas cards when I heard a series of small firecrackers downstairs. Within seconds, both Leonard Bernstein and my friend Ruth Ford (a.k.a. Mrs. Zachary Scott) phoned, asking me to rush down to the basement to see if the furnace had exploded. What I saw was the bloody body of not just a revered and peace-loving Beatle, but a shy friend and neighbor as naïve and unsophisticatedly middle-class as he was celebrated. He was an odd but decent guy, and I liked him. Once, when I signed a petition to protect him from deportation during an unpleasant, overpublicized drug investigation into his life and career, he rewarded me with a thank-you note and a year’s subscription to TV Guide.

The ambulance arrived too late. I will never forget helping a shocked and sobbing Yoko and what was left of her husband into the police car in which he died, and the subsequent holocaust of global hysterics that would plague the Dakota for eternity, as a footnote to the history of the rise and fall of the rich and famous began to write itself. The thing I never saw that night was the cretinous loony responsible for plunging the world into trepidation and darkness. Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon, was dragged away in handcuffs within minutes, leaving an infuriating mystery that is at least partially solved in a riveting new film, Chapter 27, with a galvanizing performance by an unrecognizable Jared Leto that can truly be called unforgettable.

Overweight, lonely, full of confusion and rage, Chapman arrived in New York on Dec. 6, 1980, from Hawaii obsessed with the character of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s literary masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, a book that still affects generations of young readers the way James Dean and his red windbreaker affected rebellious teens in the 1950’s. He checked into a grim Manhattan Y.M.C.A., wandered the streets aimlessly and parked himself in front of the Dakota vainly hoping to meet his idol, jotting thoughts in a greasy notebook like “I’m too vulnerable for a world full of pain and lies and phoniness.” On Dec. 7, he moved to the Sheraton Centre, a hotel he could not afford, and lay silently on his bed watching a TV test pattern. On the third day, Dec. 8, he mused aloud that he would never see that room again, and set out in a neat line on his dressing table what was left of his life—a passport, a letter of commendation for his volunteer work with Vietnamese children, a few photos from his travels, a drawing of Frank L. Baum characters from The Wizard of Oz and a Holy Bible, and headed for the Dakota with a pistol. The day ended with the delusional act of a psychopath who idealized, envied and despised his own idol, destroying John Lennon, age 40, as an attempt to write a final, 27th chapter to The Catcher in the Rye. (J. D. Salinger ended it with 26.)

Writer-director Jarrett Schaefer condenses the facts chronologically, lending suspense to what is basically a film without much movement or action. But it is the pulverizing concentration and almost somnambulistic intensity of Jared Leto that gives the film its life and pulse. Ordering a call girl, using the pseudonym Holden Caulfield, grilling the Dakota doorman about Lennon’s whereabouts (“Is he inside? When is he coming back?”), striking indifferent conversations with a photographer (Judah Friedlander) and another autograph hound (Lindsay Lohan), it is clear he’s an accident waiting to happen. The film catalogs everything Chapman did, from copying Lennon’s eating habits (sushi, sashimi and Hershey’s with almonds) to passive resistance when taken into custody. He didn’t run, struggle or show any self-defense. In fact, Jose, the Dakota doorman who tackled him after the shots were fired, was more traumatized than Chapman. He never worked the door again, and retired soon after. Except for one appearance with Larry King in 1992 and a series of interviews with crime reporter Jack Jones, on which the movie is based, Chapman has never been seen outside the walls of Attica. Four paroles have been denied and he’s become a born-again Christian.

Neurotic and frightening in his deceptive ordinariness, Jared Leto’s every thought, value, statement, expression and gesture adds up to character revelations much bigger than they seem. It’s basically a one-man show, predictably award-worthy. An actor of pretty-boy Rob Lowe comparisons, he has submerged himself beyond recognition, gaining roughly 60 pounds for the role. He looks like a jaundiced, humongous, overripe cantaloupe, and it’s not padding, either. He takes his clothes off and the inner tube is real. I also liked the film’s realism. No movie has been filmed inside the Dakota since 1971, when Otto Preminger wrecked somebody’s apartment shooting Such Good Friends. But I guess even a fortress with stringent rules doesn’t own the street. They’ve even captured with accuracy the churning mob scenes that developed following the evening news alerts. Within hours, all entrances were blocked and West 72nd Street looked like a depressing combination of Mardi Gras, the World Series, and a candlelight vigil in Lourdes. Still, I don’t know how they got the street blocked off to show so much of the fabled building from so many angles. There’s even a shot of my own apartment.

Chapter 27 is perhaps not a monumental, earth-shattering work of art, but my personal interest is understandable, and even if you are only moderately curious about the events that led up to the pointless death of a musical icon, I think you’ll find it a film of arm-twisting fascination. Jared Leto Expands in Grim Role of Lennon’s Killer