Critic's Notebook

The deep, dark chill of a madman’s smirk

Loughner’s mug shot evokes look of film bad guys

(Globe Staff Digital Illustration By Josue Evilla)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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You see that mug shot and gasp. It’s not an image you watch. It’s one you glimpse and then turn away from. Whether it was staring out from newsstands or enormous flat-screen televisions, its realness is scary. We’ve been told it’s the face of insanity, which might be true. According to police, Jared Lee Loughner killed six of the 20 people he shot and took the time to get change for his taxi ride to the scene — a Safeway shopping plaza. But it’s the evil of his face that you react to. He arrived in court Monday and gave us the visage of a certain kind of madman.

Until his mug shot surfaced, the images we saw on television and in the press were of a not particularly troubled-looking kid. We were free to extrapolate about the nature of his alleged crime, and for anyone who wasn’t at the scene, the evil of that Saturday retained a rather incongruously innocent face. Loughner must, as they say, have read his own press. By Monday, his head and eyebrows had been shaved, which made his eyes seem bigger. He smirked. Mug shots make me wonder whether an editor plays a role. They never seem to lie.

In this case, Loughner contributes to that smirk a bit of mustard that suggests he was ready for this closeup. “I planned ahead,’’ he wrote in one of his letters, and so you wonder, recoiling from his Pima County Sheriff’s Department mug shot, whether his plans included an evocation of notorious real-life assassins, movie nihilists, murderers, murderer-nihilists. I’m sure at this point someone has already affixed a Photoshopped bowler hat atop Loughner’s head and drawn an exaggerated lash around his left eye. Although the bruising around his right one does the trick: He’s Malcolm McDowell leering at the camera in “A Clockwork Orange.’’ Loughner’s smirk is more terrifying. It’s a shock adornment.

The scariest moment in David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’’ — at least the moment that haunts the memory (there’s a difference between what scared you in the theater and what continues to scare you when you’re alone opening the refrigerator at 11 p.m.) — involves none of the murder scenes. They’re discovered, not witnessed — both passive atrocities and an opportunity for the production designer, Arthur Max, to outdo himself with one tableau mordant after the next.

The murders in “Se7en’’ are dissected and discussed in a mood of foreboding. After three minutes, the chill of evil has seeped into your bones. Detectives Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt spend the film desperate to prevent future killings, but the man they chase never surrenders the upper hand. The crime scenes aren’t the movie’s big reveal. It’s the killer, who for one elaborate foot chase is an elusive shadow in a trench coat and a pork pie hat. Then he interrupts a rather standard procedural-thriller scene in which Freeman and Pitt trudge up a flight of stairs at the police station. Unseen but somewhere in the atrium, this is what the killer says: “Detectives.’’ Actually, he screams: “Detectiiiiiiiives!’’

When the movie initially cuts to him it’s for only a beat. Long enough for us to see that it’s Kevin Spacey, playing a character called John Doe. The opening credits never mention his name, contributing some combination of surprise (the serial killer is Keyser Söze?) and exciting mystery (at least 30 more minutes remain; what happens now?). Spacey’s introduction scares me because it kicks up what had been, up to that point, a meticulous work of genre subversion — atmosphere replaces action. When Spacey hands himself over, it’s a moment of clarity. The mouse surrenders to the cat, which is also part of the game.

Brad Pitt barks at him to hit the floor, and Spacey, whose head is shorn, though not quite as severely as Loughner’s, can hardly take his eyes off of Pitt and Morgan Freeman. As he folds from standing to kneeling to flat on the floor, one thing about his appearance doesn’t change: his smirk.

The smirk signifies defiance in the face of surrender: You’ve caught me, but you haven’t won. Lee Harvey Oswald wore a discreet one for his mug shot. Charles Manson always seemed to have one, too. In “Se7en,’’ the smirk is how you know John Doe isn’t finished. It’s how you know another head will roll. In Tim Burton’s “Batman’’ and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,’’ the Joker’s smirk is a sign — in the Burton, of sociopathology, and, in the Nolan, of psychopathology. The smirk in “The Dark Knight’’ might be the most violent smirk in the movies. Even more than Jack Nicholson’s in “Batman,’’ it’s a scar, a physical mark of sadism, a Nike swoosh of villainy (“Just doom it’’). Heath Ledger wears it in nutso mockery of temperance, propriety, morality, and tastefulness. Everything should feel good, especially evil.

Looking at Jared Lee Loughner’s smirk, it’s tempting to think of the devil he knows we know. And yet it’s possible that Loughner might not have seen any of these movies. But we have, and we know that face in other, safer contexts. To be forced to see it outside the hothouse of entertainment, as tragic news, and to see it in such harshly lit digital relief is terrifying. Unlike those other smirks, the terrible power of Loughner’s comes not simply from its possible mockery of other smirks. It stems from an implication, from a perverse, backhanded judgment. This is a smirk we’ve paid, many times, to see. With Loughner, it becomes a meta-smirk. The sickest, scariest thing about the image of this particular Joker is that his face appears to be saying the joke is now on us.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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