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For the second season of FX’s American Crime Story franchise, Tom Rob Smith used a reverse-chronological structure to trace Andrew Cunanan’s Talented Mr. Ripley-style journey from con artist with identity issues to road-tripping murderer. It was a framing device that didn’t always feel organic, but it yielded unexpected emotional rewards as the series progressed, aided tremendously by Darren Criss’ lacerating performance.
It’s impossible to know if writer Richard Warlow took inspiration from The Assassination of Gianni Versace; maybe it’s a complete coincidence that he approached the menacing tale of ’70s serial killer Charles Sobhraj as a Talented Mr. Ripley-esque saga about an identity-conflicted con man, complete with a fractured timeline. In this case, Warlow’s eight-part Netflix/BBC One drama The Serpent ends up being an infuriating blueprint for how bad storytelling choices, bad accents and an opaque central performance can thwart even the most inherently gripping of yarns.
AIR DATE Apr 02, 2021
Nicknamed the Serpent for his slithery evasiveness and the Bikini Killer because several of his victims were found in skimpy swimwear, Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) killed at least a dozen people in Thailand, India and Nepal over a few years in the mid-’70s. Most of his victims were tourists on the so-called hippie trail and his other crimes included bank robbery, cheque fraud and passport manipulation. Using Bangkok as his central hub, Sobhraj swapped names and identifications, and he worked with cohorts, including lovely Quebecois Marie-Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and the amoral Ajay (Amesh Edireweera). With crimes straddling international jurisdictions and involving nationals from disparate countries, Sobhraj seemed uncatchable until he drew the attention of low-level Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber), who spent years seeking justice.
The thing that’s baffling about Warlow’s approach to the story is that the process of finding and catching Sobhraj was already immeasurably twisty. The thing Herman was trying to accomplish was already outside of his job purview and required that he work against the interests of corrupt law enforcement agencies, disinterested embassy figures each with a different agenda and victims and witnesses so prone to drug-addled meandering that it was hard to know when somebody had been murdered and when they’d just fallen off the grid in a narcotic haze. Throw in Sobhraj’s document-forging and gift for manipulation, and you could have played this game of cat-and-mouse out over four hours in deliriously entertaining fashion, complete with trippy costumes, a killer soundtrack and an eclectic cast, with no embellishment required.
The Serpent is a structural nightmare, pinballing from country to country and forward and backward in time. It isn’t incomprehensible. No, Warlow and director Tom Shankland insist on noting every shift in time and location with imagery and clattering sound effects from a retro travel destination board. The back-and-forth structure throws any sort of character development for Sobhraj and his crew out the window (ditto any sense of how their crimes evolved) and drains Herman’s burgeoning investigative skills of any suspenseful progression. I don’t doubt that distinguishing between locations in Southeast Asian countries would be somewhat difficult if they weren’t properly introduced initially, but doing it every single time and with the same sound effect had me flinching before the end of the first hour. And that was before we got introduced to scenes in Paris with both the onscreen “PARIS” chyron and then establishing shots of both the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.
There’s a looping and overlapping aspect to many of the murders as they’re depicted here — different stages of being conned, drugged and killed — and the time jumping actually reinforces a monotony to the crimes: a lot of vomiting and smothering and body dumping tied to interchangeable beardos and longhairs. Even if we eventually get to know some of the victims, we become bored with them and their fates first, and there’s no chance that was the intention. Here’s where a series at roughly half the length would have been an improvement. The sequences of writhing, sweaty tourists go from harrowing to Hostel-style foreign torture porn, and then lose meaning.
I’m not sure The Serpent needed to be couched as primarily Sobhraj’s story either. After it’s established that he’s driven by an inferiority complex that stems from being mixed race (Indian and Vietnamese) in countries that marginalize him as “brown,” Sobhraj’s psychological depths are never plumbed and Rahim’s performance is maddeningly enigmatic — sometimes effectively so, but sometimes completely lacking in the magnetic charisma other characters keep referencing and in the sociopathic humor the script hints at. There’s no question that villains whose motivations we don’t understand can be unnerving, but eight hours of not understanding left me with a “Maybe try harder?” feeling.
Rahim is surrounded by a cast of strange selections. There are moments Shankland’s camera captures Coleman silently conveying Marie-Andree’s uncertainty in ways that are effective, but any time she spoke in accented English or French I lost the ability to understand why you’d cast a British actress with no Gallic credentials in the part. Howle and Bamber are much better, and the series comes to life in the more linear middle installments. Bamber, a standout in the Shankland-directed Les Miserables miniseries, captures Angela’s frustrated contributions to the case well and, unlike Howle, her accent never makes her sound like Tom Hardy’s Bane.
After the opening episodes over-fixate on Rahim and Coleman’s characters, a good ensemble eventually develops. Mathilde Warnier as Sobhraj’s increasingly distrustful French neighbor, Tim McInnerny as a boozy Belgian diplomat and Damon Herriman as a boozy Australian diplomat became my favorites.
Shankland gets good value out of the international locations the production was able to use before COVID hit, and while I know that a lot of masked British stages were subbed in later, the look blends well. Those middle episodes where Herman forms an unlikely Scooby gang of amateur gumshoes even feature some unnerving set pieces.
Throw in those aforementioned groovy threads and a really great assortment of period needle drops and the show is constantly reminding you of how many positive attributes it would have if it could just sit still and tell its story more clearly. Or maybe it’s better for The Serpent that I’m harping on formal flaws instead of how rarely it seems to understand Sobhraj and his sidekicks, or how superficial is its empathy for their victims.
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber, Amesh Edireweera, Mathilde Warnier, Tim McInnerny
Writer: Richard Warlow
Director: Tom Shankland
Premieres Friday, April 2, on Netflix.
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