White trash serial killers

14: Buffalo Bill, The Silence of the Lambs’ inarticulate, “white trash” serial killer, is played off against the eloquent, intellectual, bourgeois Lecter.

15: Copycat’s “white trash” killer, Cullum (Henry Connick Jr.), revels in killing a cop.

16: Brad Pitt cast against type as Kalifornia’s uncouth, “white trash” serial killer, Early Grayce.

17: Early Grayce’s bad table manners offend Carrie (Michelle Forbes), who immediately regards him as a threat solely because he fails to live up to her bourgeois standards of decorum.

18: Kalifornia’s middle-class Brian (David Duchovny) experiences raw, primal masculinity during homosocial rituals with Early.

19: Brian shoots Early at point blank range, rejecting his previous liberal stance against the death penalty for serial killers.

20: Mallory (Juliette Lewis) being subjected to abuse at the hands of her father (Rodney Dangerfield) in Natural Born Killers.

21: “White trash” serial killer, Mickey (Woody Harrelson), morphs into a diabolical figure as he tells TV presenter Wayne Gayle (Robert Downey Jr.) that everyone has demons raging inside them.

22: The Native American Mickey eventually murders, positing him beyond redemption, regards Mickey as the demon he has seen in his dreams.

23: A demonic, black and white image of Natural Born Killers’ murderous cop Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) flashes on the screen as he reassures a future female victim, “I’m the Law, Ok? I’m a protector.”

24: Tommy Lee Jones in a cameo role as Natural Born Killer’s hysterical prison warden, whose violence is sanctioned by the law.

25: TV presenter Wayne Gayle joins in with the killing, complete with a Rambo-style headband, telling Mickey he feels alive for the first time.

Uncanny doublings

26:  Red Dragon’s profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) and Hannibal Lecter are visually doubled through similar costume and wounds.

27: The final shot of Red Dragon shows Will reunited with his family in the privatized setting of his boat, divorced from any social context.

28: Keanu Reeves' vacuous star person renders him the archetypal, depthless, affectless serial killer in The Watcher.

29: James Spader as The Watcher’s guilt-ridden, burnt-out, Detective Campbell.

30: Keanu Reeves’ serial killer informs Campbell that they need each other for self-definition in a scene charged with barely sublimated homoerotic tension.

31: One of the “love notes” left by Bloodwork’s serial killer, indicative of the homoerotic “cat and mouse” chase between killer and detective that characterizes the genre.

32: Bloodwork’s profiler McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) unwittingly confides in the serial killer in an intimate, tightly framed, inside-of-the-car shot that plays into the conventions of the buddy movie.

33: Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct’s famed interrogation scene: “What are you going to do? Charge me with smoking?”

34: The interrogation of Basic Instinct’s cop, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), deploys almost identical mise-en-scène, lighting, camerawork and dialogue to the earlier scene with Catherine, reinforcing the film’s overdetermined doubling between serial killer and detective.

35: Angelina Jolie as a female cop in The Bone Collector, revealing that the female protagonist in the slasher-inspired serial killer movie need no longer be masculinized or desexualized.

36: Copycat’s Detective Monahan (Holly Hunter) surrounded by mainly male cops, the high camera angle emphasizing her small stature and implied vulnerability.

37: Composition and a dominating high camera angle convey that Clarice works in an overwhelmingly hostile, male environment.

38: Clarice rescuing Buffalo Billís female captive, rendering her a protector of women against the insanity of male violence.

39: The unctuous Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) furious at Clarice for rejecting his unsolicited advances and questioning his professional authority.

40: FBI chief Agent Crawford (Scott Glenn) functions as a paternal figure for Clarice, whose own cop father died in the line of duty when she was a child.

41: Copycat’s Callum in the throes of looping a noose around Helen’s neck in a scene that forces identification with the victim through point of view shots.

42: Helen and Detective Monahan work together to track down the serial killer in Copycat.

43: Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) as Seven’s erudite, African-American cop, researching the Seven Deadly Sins in the public library.

44: Seven’s impulsive, distraught Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) shoots the serial killer who decapitated his wife, placing himself on the wrong side of the law.

45: A tightly framed, intimate shot of Denzel Washington’s paralysed, African-American forensic expert and Angelina Jolie’s white female cop, who defeat the film’s white male serial killer together.


“White trash” serial killers

The derogatory descriptor “white trash” has recently received academic attention, most notably from Annalee Newitz and Matthew Wray, who argue that

“[y]oking a classist epithet to a racist one, as white trash does, reminds us how often racism is in fact directly related to economic differences” (169).
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“White trash,” they argue, is a non-dominant form of whiteness that undermines notions that white identity is necessarily “the primary locus of social privilege and power” (169). Nevertheless, this function would seem to come at a high cost in 90s films such as Copycat, Kalifornia (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). There the serial killer is demonized through the deployment of crude stereotypes of white, working-class, rural masculinity and played off against the middle-class whites whose lives he threatens. As with the abusive, redneck sadists in John Boorman’s influential Deliverance (1972), simply being “white trash” would seem to give sufficient narrative justification for these killers’ murderous impulses.

Copycat’s first serial killer, Daryll Lee Cullum (Henry Connick Jr.), whose threat to the white, bourgeois Helen is explicitly sexual, is an unshaven, swaggering, redneck lout, with bad teeth and a crude vocabulary, who even screams out “yee ha!” after shooting a cop and spitting on his body (still 15). Kalifornia makes no bones about the class of its serial killer: as Brian (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) meet Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) (whose name alone renders him an atavistic throw-back) and Adele (Juliette Lewis), Brian’s voice-over informs us:

“If you looked in the dictionary under ‘poor white trash,’ a picture of Early and Adele would have been there.”

Early has unkempt, greasy hair, scruffy clothes, and spits, swears, burps, grunts and drinks beer for breakfast (still 16). Indeed, Carrie’s original suspicions about Early are alerted solely because he offends her middle-class sensibilities. A scene at a diner makes that clear when it intercuts a close-up of Early playing with his sweaty socks at the dinner table against a shot of her disapproving gaze (still 17). Brian, on the other hand, is initially attracted to Early, and enjoys the homosocial rituals of getting drunk and learning to fire a gun with him in the face of Carrie’s disapproval. The suggestion here is that Brian’s masculinity has been jeopardized by his bourgeois, consumer-led lifestyle and his relationship with a dynamic, career-driven woman (still 18).

When it becomes obvious that Early poses a sexual threat to Carrie, however (his long-term abuse and murder of Adele are dealt with more perfunctorily), the film rehearses the common trope of remasculinization through violence. While Brian had earlier argued against the death penalty with his middle-class friends, refusing the existence of innate evil, he soon jettisons his liberal beliefs, shooting Early at close range. Brian thus guiltlessly dispenses a punishment that not only reaffirms existing class hierarchies but also differentiates him from his “white trash” other in the very act of proving that his own primal masculinity is still very much intact (still 19)

Oliver Stone’s experimental, though ideologically incoherent Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, offers a more complex representation of the “white trash” serial killer. In the tradition of the outlaw couple inaugurated by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), gender norms are violated by the fact that Mallory (Juliette Lewis) relishes in the killing spree as much as Mickey (Woody Harrelson), though her violence is contextualized against the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father (Rodney Dangerfield) as well as other male authority figures (still 20). Similarly, in the bio-doc Monster (2003), based on the life of one of the few known female serial killers, Aileen Wuornos, female violence is posited as a response not only to class injustice, but also patriarchal violence.

While Natural Born Killer’s Mickey is also given an abusive family background, unlike Mallory he is endowed with satanic dimensions, even morphing into the figure of a bald, blood-drenched devilish figure surrounded by engulfing flames in several intercutting shots throughout the film (still 21). Indeed, the stereotypically wise Native American that Mickey kills — thus forging a link between the white violence on which modern America was founded and the whiteness of serial killing — sees “demon” projected across Mickey’s chest, but believes Mallory to be suffering from “sad sickness” (still 22). Mickey, who, unlike most “white trash” serial killers, is compellingly eloquent, justifies his violence as an attempt to rise above the banality of a defiling image culture (implicitly coded as feminizing). He proudly declares himself a “natural born killer” in a scene that encapsulates the film’s pivotal discursive contradiction: blaming violence both on the contaminations of the media and an innate, primal aggression that is indexed through representations that are unavoidably classist.

The 90s trend for “white trash” serial killers can partly be attributed to their white-on-white, straight-on-straight, gender-indiscriminate violence (though women are subjected to sexual abuse, with Early and Mickey both raping female captives), which largely escape the identity critiques that have pivoted around the categories of gender, race and sexuality in recent years. In her discussion of rednecks in the horror genre, for instance, Clover argues that “the displacement of ethnic otherness onto a class of whites” is “the most significant ‘ethnic’ development” in recent popular culture (135n.21). However, it would be reductive to read these “white trash” killers solely as symbolic stand-ins for racial minorities, a reading that would overlook entrenched histories of prejudice against rural and urban, white, working-class people, who are often held responsible for their poverty. Indeed, Clover’s reading is itself also symptomatic of the ways in which class is often subsumed into racial discourse.

Newitz, on the other hand, has argued that films in which middle-class whites are abused by “white trash” villains free privileged whites from the guilt of exercising white power whilst allowing them to prove their superiority and innocence (“White Savagery” 139-44). This works to confirm classist assumptions about the abusive hypermasculinity of white working-class males and legitimize a violent resurgence of punitive power that attempts to purify middle-class whiteness, in particular middle-class, white, heterosexual masculinity, of any contamination.

However, as Newitz and Wray note, “white trash,” being both inside and outside the category of whiteness, always constitutes “both an internal and external threat” (169). This threat is evident in Stone’s more critical Natural Born Killers, which, less subtly than The Silence of the Lambs, parallels the serial killer’s violence with the violence enacted by all white male authority figures — Mallory’s father, Scagnetti the killer cop (Tom Sizemore) (still 23), Tommy Lee Jones’ hysterical prison warden (still 24), and the unctuous reality TV presenter, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), who ends up participating in the killing spree (still 25). The film thus destabilizes the opposition between institutionalized, white, patriarchal violence and the violence of the serial killer, even as it deploys the image of the “white trash” serial killer to represent primal, unadulterated, “natural born” aggression. In the following section I further explore films that self-consciously double white male representatives of the law with the serial killer, interrogating what anxieties about white, heterosexual masculinity are screened in the process. 

Uncanny doublings between the detective and serial killer: the implications for white, heterosexual masculinity

The common trend of highlighting uncanny resemblances between the detective and killer has its roots in the doubling of the hero and monster that attends the gothic tradition, where the monster represents “the other within” — that is, those fears and desires that the hero has had to repress in order to enter civilized, bourgeois society.[6] [open notes in new window] While the monster, therefore, always functions as an othered figure, s/he always troubles the hero’s identity since s/he represents the “return of the repressed.” In the police procedural style serial killer movie, the serial killer often delights in highlighting uncanny similarities between himself and the detective, suggesting that they merely operate on different sides of the law. When the detective is embodied by a white male, any doubling between investigator and killer inevitably calls into question the detective’s sense of innocence.

Of course, in most films, the detective is redeemed in narrative closure, most often through his violent dispatch of the killer. Such a conclusion re-secures the boundaries of the detective's identity and repeats the common motif of “regeneration through violence” that Richard Slotkin has located in frontier literature and mythology, and which is endlessly repeated in popular U.S. cinema.

At the same time, the difficulty the white male detective initially faces in establishing an identity distinct from the white male serial killer, with both sharing the unmarked, universal identity of the dominant norm, not only raises questions of white, heterosexual masculinity’s complicity in patriarchal violence, but also it represents concerns about the difficulty of white male self-distinction in

“a culture that appears to organize itself around the visibility of differences and the symbolic currency of identity politics” (Robinson 3).

Red Dragon (2002), the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, and remake of the earlier Manhunter (1986), knowingly highlights similarities between the white male profiler and serial killer. One of the opening scenes reveals FBI profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) enlisting the help of famed forensic psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whose bourgeois and professional status initially safeguards him from suspicion. As a profiler, Will’s very job is to identify with the killer’s psychic processes. When Will states, “I’m starting to be able to think like this one,” Lecter cannily replies,

“You’re able to assume the emotional point of view of other people, even those that might scare or sicken you. It’s a troubling gift, I should think. How I’d love to get you on my couch.”

When it dawns on Will that Lecter is in fact the killer he pursues, in the violent struggle that follows the two men are visually paralleled. Both are dressed in dark suit trousers and white shirts (symbols of moneyed, patriarchal authority), and both stab each other’s left side, marking their pristine white shirts with almost identical, bloody stains (still 26). After his arrest, Lecter informs Will, “You caught me because we are very much alike.” In addition, when Will’s use of an irritating journalist as bait leads to the latter’s gruesome murder at the hands of the film’s second serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), Lecter asks Will whether he enjoyed orchestrating the journalist’s death. Then, also manipulating Will’s guilt at putting his own family at risk, he taunts him by claiming, “No one will ever be safe around you.”

Lecter thus deploys his skills as a brilliant psychoanalyst in order to play on Will’s darkest fears of his own complicity. While Will asserts that there is a major difference between him and Lecter — he is not insane — the suggestion of shared characteristics is nonetheless voiced. Indeed, the final shot of Will reunited with his family in the privatized space of the bourgeois family suggests that he has turned his back on the profession that rendered his own identity and sense of innocence a fragile affair (still 27).

The Watcher  (2000) and Blood Work (2002), which rehearse homoerotic narratives of a highly personal game of cat and mouse between serial killer and detective, also screen the difficulties the white male detective faces in distancing himself from the killer. The Watcher’s serial killer, David Griffin, is played by Keanu Reeves, whose wooden acting style has led to him being described “as a kind of pure, blank surface, lacking all depth” (Rutsky 187), rendering him the apotheosis of the vacuous, two-dimensional serial killer profile (still 28). Indeed, Griffin’s only passion is his relationship with the film’s profiler, Joel Campbell (James Spader). In the film’s narrative past, Griffin had kidnapped Campbell’s girlfriend in order to keep Campbell and him “together forever,” describing this event as “our finest moment.”

While Campbell manages to track Griffin down before his girlfriend is killed, his decision to leave her tied to a chair while going in pursuit of Griffin proves disastrous when the house catches fire and she is subjected to an agonizing death. Racked by guilt, Campbell is reduced to an insomniac, tranquilizer-dependent wreck who retires from the force and moves to Chicago in order to be near his girlfriend’s grave (still 29). Griffin, however, soon locates him, shadowing his every move, and forces him out of retirement by sending him pictures of his future victims. When Campbell’s female therapist suggests that Griffin re-instated their relationship because he missed Campbell, her question, “Did you miss him?” angers Campbell but nonetheless remains unanswered. Griffin, though, much like Lecter with Will in Red Dragon, delights in drawing attention to their mutually informing relationship:

“We need each other. We define each other. We’re yin and yang.” (still 30)

Blood Work rehearses a similar narrative. The serial killer also leaves profiler Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) “love letters,” that is, a numerical code as clue, after every killing in order to entice him into the chase (still 31). When McCaleb suffers a massive coronary on the job, the serial killer, who turns out to be McCaleb’s irritating neighbour, James Noone (Jeff Daniels), murders organ donors who share McCaleb’s unusual blood type in order to supply McCaleb with the new heart he needs, and thus keep their relationship alive. Noone tells McCaleb that their relationship is “meant to be,” while McCaleb had earlier confided that his pursuit of the killer makes him feel more “connected” with the world around him.

The detective and killer in The Watcher and Blood Work, then, become locked in a relationship of mutual dependence, one which screens the precarious nature of white male self-definition, with the investigator being “in danger of losing his identity” because of his “obsessive pursuit” of the killer (Tasker, Working Girls 105). Moreover, the detective is also made an unwilling accomplice in the serial killer’s crimes, although the detective achieves redemption and transcendence in narrative closure when he violently kills his adversary. At the same time, both films also knowingly screen the homoerotic desire that threatens to erupt in all scenarios of homosocial bonding, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has notably observed, thus airing anxieties about the instabilities of (male) heterosexual identifications. Indeed, Noone’s self-chosen nickname “Buddy” is no coincidence in a film that reworks the homoerotic dimensions of the buddy movie (still 32).

The fact that “a lack of distance between hunter and hunted” foregrounds “questions of desires and sexuality” (Tasker, Working Girls 105) becomes more evident in those few films with female serial killers and white male investigators in the hybrid genre of the erotic thriller. The prime example, of course, is Basic Instinct (1992), which reverses the conventions of the profiler movie, since the evil serial killer, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), seems to have intimate knowledge of the detective, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), which “serves to reinforce the suggestion of similarity between them” (105). 

This similarity is highlighted throughout the film. Both have killed (Nick killed some tourists while high on cocaine), both have passed a polygraph test that acquitted them, and, as Catherine herself delights in pointing out, both revel in taking risks, professionally and sexually. As his professional identity slowly slips away from him due to his erotic involvement with Catherine — a collapsing of the private/public distinction which is common to the genre — Nick is eventually questioned by Internal Affairs in a scene that self-consciously deploys almost identical mise-en-scène, cameraworkand dialogue to Catherine’s earlier interrogation scene (stills 33 and 34). Indeed, on being asked to extinguish his cigarette, Nick echoes Catherine’s exact same line:

“What are you going to do? Charge me with smoking?”

Thus the film not only posits him as an equally monstrous figure as the killer he pursues in the manner of more conventional serial killer films, but it also articulates traditional noir instability over male identity caused by the aggressive sexuality of the femme fatale. While the film certainly plays into backlash fantasies by screening the monstrous threat posed by sexually active and professionally successful women in rather the worn narrative of white male victimhood, it also screens concerns that Nick seems to lack an identity, forced to borrow words and phrases from the woman who manipulates him at will. 

These concerns, I would argue, are inextricable from the difficulties that U.S., white, heterosexual masculinity currently faces in accessing a positive, specific identity in the age of identity critiques. The structural logic of identity politics is such that it requires a dominant identity — white, heterosexual masculinity — with access to the privileges to which minority groups aspire. In the process, white, heterosexual masculinity is emptied out of positive content even as its gendered, raced and sexual privileges — that is, its particularities — are unveiled. The important political successes of identity politics have thus left the middle-class, white, heterosexual male with no distinct identity to lay claim to but that of the oppressor.

Consequently, while white, heterosexual masculinity’s universal positioning has undeniably been a position of great ideological strength, it also incorporates the anxiety that, as the dominant norm, its very ordinariness renders it a rather sterile, empty identity.[7] Thomas DiPiero, for instance, in his analysis of Grand Canyon (1991) and White Men Can’t Jump (1992), has argued that the white male protagonists of these films are dependent on women and people of color to define their identity, leading him to suggest that white masculinity “is not represented so much as an identity” in U.S. culture as “a hysterical response to a perceived lack of identity” (117).

One response in popular cinema to this anxiety has been the much-documented emergence of “the white male as victim” figure in films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II(1985), Falling Down (1993) and Fight Club (1999). Many critics have suggested that this trend allows a recentring of the dominant identity in the very act of decentring it, as well as working on the common correlation of victimhood and innocence (Pfeil; Robinson; Savran). This certainly applies to the serial killer films I discuss above. In these the white male detectives are posited as victims as well as heroes, a recuperative strategy which reveals how (white) male power can actually reconsolidate itself “through cycles of crisis and resolution” (Modleksi 7). Nevertheless, the difficulties these white male profilers have in distancing themselves from the serial killer expresses anxieties about the dominant identity’s relation to power and violence, as well as its gnawing sense of its inability to lay claim to a specific, positive identity.            

This becomes all the more apparent in films where the detective is embodied by a woman (normally white) or person of colour (normally African American male) — generic shifts which themselves testify to the (limited) successes of identity politics, with Hollywood ever keen to co-opt the discourses of politicized identity in order to capture wider audiences for its product (Davies and Smith 3). These non-white male investigators are able to access specific, minoritized identities which are unavailable to white male detectives, installing a distance between themselves and the white male serial killers they pursue.

The female detective, as Carol Clover has noted, has her roots in the slasher genre, in which increasingly the male rescuer/survivor function has been rendered “marginal or dispensed with altogether,” resulting in a female victim-hero figure that Clover dubs “the final girl” (60). Complicating Laura Mulvey’s binary schema, Clover argues that horror films tend to install a sadomasochistic visual economy, engineered through point of view shots that oscillate between the killer (sadistic identification) and victim (masochistic identification).

According to Clover, the “final girl” — who is invariably boyish, “not fully masculine” and “not fully feminine” and “sexually reluctant” to boot — acts as a stand-in with which the predominately young male audience can identify in order to experience but disavow the pleasures of masochism (40, 18). With “abject terror” still “gendered feminine” (60), therefore, Clover does not applaud the prevalence of the “final girl” as a feminist development, but rather regards her as “an agreed-upon fiction” that the male viewer can use “as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies in an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty” (53).

Personally, I would credit the “final girl” with more subversive potential than Clover, particularly as regards female viewing pleasure, which remains rather secondary in Clover’s account. But it is also important to remember that Clover’s primary focus is the slasher film, out of which the contemporary, sleek serial killer movie emerged, and in which the boyish, desexualized “final girl” has transmuted into an attractive, professional woman, often obliged to field sexual advances that threaten her profession identity. While it is important to stress that the white, female heroines of these films are not necessarily masculinized, an argument that would result in a rather circular logic (they are “figurative males” because of their narrative positioning and function), it is still the case that they are placed in positions of traditional patriarchal authority, as we see in such films as The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Steel (1990), Copycat, The Bone Collector (1999) and Taking Lives (2004) (stills 35, 36 37).

While the problematic positioning of female heroines as representatives of the law limits these films’ ability to engage in any comprehensive critique of patriarchy and its institutions, they are nonetheless able to tap into popular feminist discourses. Those discourses render the films' female detectives less troubled by their proximity to the violence of the serial killer or by the anxieties of self-distinction that plague their white male counterparts.

The Silence of the Lambs offers a particularly interesting example of the female detective. As Yvonne Tasker has noted, in accordance with generic conventions, Clarice is doubled with Buffalo Bill, since Clarice is also seeking self-transformation, though in terms of class (she wishes to transcend her working-class roots) rather than gender (Tasker, Working Girls 106). In her role as profiler, she also has to enter the psychic processes of the serial killer in order to comprehend his pathology, much as Will does in Red Dragon. However, as the generally positive feminist response to the film indicates, Clarice’s very femaleness also allows her to access the positive identity of a feminist heroine who is protecting fellow women from the insanity of male violence against women (still 38).

At the same time, as I noted above, white, heterosexual male authority figures in the film are coded as at best ineffectual and at worst abusive, largely through the process of doubling. The repellent Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) and FBI chief Agent Crawford (Scott Glenn) are both likened to Lecter due to their obvious erotic interest in Clarice, which threatens her professional identity. Moreover, Chilton betrays Clarice for spurning his unsolicited advances, which Elizabeth Young regards as an implicit “literalization” of Miggs’ “disgusting act,” differing “in degree but not in kind” (10-11) (still 39). Crawford, despite functioning as a substitute paternal figure, also uses Clarice as bait to capture Buffalo Bill, rendering her the sacrificial lamb of the title (still 40).Thus, the film “dramatiz[es] the violent symmetry of gender relations” (11), so that although Clarice finally kills Buffalo Bill to protect both herself and his latest female victim, women are represented as victims of gender violence, not its agents.

Similar strategies are at work in Copycat, where Helen, who publishes and lectures on the topic of serial killing, is at one point accused of being complicit in glorifying serial violence. As with profilers, she also has the uncanny ability to comprehend the killer’s motives and modus operandi. However, Helen is attacked by both of the film’s killers in erotically charged scenes which deploy slasher-style camerawork, orchestrating masochistic identification with the victim function in the manner that Clover suggests (still 41). In other words, the victim and aggressor roles are distinctly gendered in the film. Helen also joins forces with Monahan, whose white male partner is killed off remarkably perfunctorily in an unrelated case, forging a female alliance against (white) male violence (still 42).

African American male detectives also occupy positions of symbolic and moral authority in serial killer films such as Seven (1995) and The Bone Collector. Seven’s world-weary, resigned, African American detective, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), is doubled with serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), as conventions dictate. Somerset shares Doe’s disgust at the immoral and degenerative world that surrounds him. He also shares Doe’s literary knowledge and erudition, which enable him to comprehend Doe’s elaborate plans to re-enact the Seven Deadly Sins (Dyer, Seven 11) (still 43). Unlike Doe, though, Somerset is also characterized by the surplus of signification that attends black bodies.

Most obviously, his role is inextricable from the stereotype of the supremely wise African American (evident in films such as The Matrix), the antithesis of the hypercriminalized black male that occupies the other pole of racial stereotyping. Somerset refuses to be dragged into Doe’s sick games, unlike his new, unstable, explosive, white male partner, Mills (Brad Pitt), who shoots Doe in cold-blood in revenge for his wife’s murder, thus fulfilling Doe’s spectacular plans to stage the final deadly sin, “wrath.” (still 44). The final scene has Mills carted away by police, now occupying the wrong side of the law, complicit in the white male violence he was supposed to prevent.

The Bone Collector screens both a bi-racial and bi-gendered alliance between an African American forensic expert, Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington), and a white female cop, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) (still 45). While Rhyme’s blackness attracts little comment throughout the film, it still visually endows him with a specific identity unavailable to the serial killer, who, in accordance with generic conventions, is represented as a hypernormative, middle-class, white male. Rhyme is further minoritized by being severely paralysed, conducing his investigation from his bed. Deploying the mode of melodrama, therefore, the film exteriorizes Rhyme’s moral virtue and innocence through “the literal suffering of an agonized body” (Williams 29).

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