Has a quiet sociopathic vibe in abundance

8 Min Read

“McVeigh,” a drama about Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, is a film rooted in the desolate underbelly of American small-town anger.

A car weaves its way across an empty road in the desolate twilight. Men drinking cheap beer hang out in roadside bars, strip clubs, or living rooms with ugly wood paneling. And Tim (Alfie Allen), an impassive loner whose scraggly beard is an outgrowth of his not bothering to shave, sits behind his table at a gun show selling $2 bumper stickers that read: “If weapons are forbidden, I will be an outlaw. ” At home, he points a gun at the TV set, just like Travis Bickle, and mimes the execution of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as she testifies at hearings on the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Tim also travels to an Arkansas prison to visit Richard Wayne Snell (Tracy Letts), a white supremacist about to be executed for a pair of murders, both racially motivated.

Snell had planned to blow up the Federal Building himself more than a decade earlier, and an agreement gradually emerges between him and McVeigh that Tim will take up the mantle and finally accomplish this “patriotic” act. But it is never said very explicitly.

Nothing in “McVeigh” is. McVeigh and Snell (one of the film’s suspicions that these two ever hooked up) have to keep their feelings down, because they’re talking on prison phones, but everyone in the film communicates with a gruff minimalism, like if they were speaking in code. There are scenes with McVeigh and his friend Terry Nichols (Brett Gelman), with whom he planned the Oklahoma City bombing, but even as they buy bags of nitromethane and stack them in a storage shed, they’re not particularly talkative about how this will all turn out . The monosyllabic gruffness is meant to convey something to the viewer: the yawning distance between what these people were actually doing (taking an action that was sociopathic, murderous, and utterly pointless) and what they thought they were doing (terrorism use to ‘feed’ the tree of liberty”).

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As “McVeigh” continues, Tim comes across as an outgrowth of his environment – ​​the desolate rural heartland of America that was becoming anti-American. Yet in many ways that image doesn’t match the reality of Timothy McVeigh, born and raised in upstate New York, who became a fairly active nomad, moving from Arizona to Kansas to Michigan and back to Arizona, all in search to of something. Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones,” “John Wick”), the British actor who plays Tim, creates the convincing surface of a man lost in a fog of impotent wrath, but McVeigh was quite eloquent in his letters and other writings about what he thought was happening to America, and I have to assume that he sometimes expressed those thoughts in words at length. But that never happens in the film, because it would detract from the desolate driving atmosphere that director Mike Ott is going for.

There’s a kind of true-life indie thriller genre at the moment about men who are notorious killers, where the films are subjective portraits that ask us to walk in the shoes of human monsters. I think of films like “Dahmer” (2002), the film that put Jeremy Renner on the map; “Chapter 27” (2007), a look at Mark David Chapman’s harrowing journey; and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019), in which Zac Efron played Ted Bundy (fantastic). These films have sometimes been accused of exploitation, but the time is more than ripe for a film like ‘McVeigh’, which captures how the subject’s descent into terrorism was propelled by the ideas of the new right-wing fanaticism.

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It is a given that anyone who commits a criminal act as monumental as the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people (19 of them children), is mentally unhealthy. Yet McVeigh has spent years drinking in the new right-wing extremism. Equal gun freedom absolutism (a position of fanatical paranoia because no one on the gun control side is threatening to repeal the Second Amendment); the idea that the siege of Waco was an unwarranted “government interference” and that David Koresh was a martyr (in fact, it was he who fired incendiary devices into the compound); the white supremacist rage that underpins the entire movement: it is much clearer now than in 1995 that McVeigh was feeding off a matrix of ideas that crossed over into the American mainstream.

This is a reality powerfully captured in works such as the documentary “Oklahoma City” (2017) and Jeffrey Toobin’s book “Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism” (2023). And it’s present in “McVeigh,” even though the film communicates it in a passive, nonverbal way. I wish we’d seen McVeigh appear during the siege at Waco (it could have been a powerful flashback), as a way to dramatize how he joined his own nihilist/anarchist/Christian separatist “community.”

Tracy Letts brings a real consciousness to his performance as Richard Wayne Snell; the prison conversation between him and Tim is riveting. On the other hand, the drama becomes darker when Tim meets the enigmatic French-Canadian Frédéric (Anthony Carrigan) at a gun show, who then recruits him for… something. Tim travels to the compound Frédéric is connected to, which turns out to be a family-friendly neo-Nazi cult. But none of this adds up to much, and so we’re never quite sure why it’s in the movie. Tim’s relationship with Cindy (Ashley Benson), who falls in love with him but then turns the cold shoulder after she makes the mistake of looking through one of his locked rooms, takes the place of his inability to be a human establish a bond. He is most closely associated with Terry Nichols, who gives Brett Gelman a humanizing fear, especially as the bombing approaches. In fact, he can’t go through with it, which is why Tim ends up doing it as a lone wolf operation.

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We see Tim driving the rented Ryder truck, filled with chemical explosives and fertilizer, on that fateful morning, and the film leaves him at a stoplight. We never see him park the truck next to the federal building. That’s a poetic choice the filmmaker made, but coming out of “McVeigh” what I felt most was that despite the ominous pull of the atmosphere and of Alfie Allen’s performance, there’s too much that we not to see.

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