It’s no secret that being a film history buff has also made me very much a period-piece junkie as well and of course when Netflix debuted their psychological thriller The Alienist last month, I carved out ample viewing time to binge watch all 10 blood curdling episodes. Now I don’t scare easily, I’ve often found traditional horror films laughable and truthfully blood and guts do nothing to turn my stomach. But there’s something exceptionally chilling and nightmarish about real crime and the deeds of serial killers that has always managed to haunt my thoughts (along with utterly fascinating my morbid curiosity).
The Alienist takes place in New York during the late 1890s when the immigrant-built city was caught between the old way of doing things, and the new progressive and science-based modus operandi. The central character of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, played by the very talented and very intense Daniel Bruhl, is an Alienist—a term for a psychiatrist that sprung up during that decade and was often used to refer to a doctor who studied human beings believed to be alienated from their own true nature and subsequently the Alienist was attempting to treat their underlying ailments. Kreizler, who runs an institution for children becomes intrigued by the murder of a prostitute boy left displayed on a bridge. Knowing he would not be able to gain access to the crime scene he enlists his old college roommate and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to investigate under the guise of journalism. Unable to purge the image of the boy’s body from his mind Moore joins Kreizler as he tries to profile the killer and solve the crime. Rounding out the excellent and cohesive ensemble cast of The Alienist is Dakota Fanning, Brian Geraghty and Douglas Smith.
The tight writing team did a fantastic job of sticking to the authenticity of the era. But it’s the art direction and costuming that really brought the first season to life. Just the right amount of dirt. Nobody likes a really “clean” period piece. But the cast is by far the winning element. Bruhl and Moore devote much of their on-screen time together developing their love-hate friendship, and Bruhl’s depiction of Kreizler as a tortured soul inside a proper gentleman gives you moments of pure sympathy mixed with utter contempt for his neglect of those around him. The character of Sara Howard (Fanning) was one I personally struggled with. In the beginning her cold and forthwith demeanour irked me. After all, you are allowed to push forward women’s rights without being utterly unpleasant. However, as each episode unfolded I found Howard completely mesmerizing and compassionate. Her ability to pick up the strewn pieces of Kreizler’s case and challenge his theories while still remaining composed and evidentiary was inspiring– and good on Fanning for navigating her way out indie-hell to prove her acting chops have only improved since child-stardom.
Those looking for mindless entertainment should shy away from The Alienist. Every episode is packed with enough psychoanalysis to cause Freud’s head spin. But for anyone who enjoys a thinker, and a little welcomed nausea, The Alienist should definitely make your Netflix “my list”. Can’t wait for Season 2.