A riveting look at one of the most prolific yet least understood serial killers in American history, “Joel” is thoroughly researched and brilliantly acted.
Joel Rifkin bears the notoriety of being the worst serial killer in New York’s history. Rifkin — also known as “The New York Strangler” and “Joel the Ripper” — killed seventeen women in a four-year period, all prostitutes he murdered by strangulation.
Despite the brutality of his crimes and the large number of victims, Rifkin is one of the lesser known serial killers who hasn’t achieved the same infamy as some of his counterparts — the “celebrity” killers like Manson, Bundy, Dahmer, and Gacy (just to name a few). The reason for this may have to do with the unassuming nature of Rifkin, the deadpan and detached way he describes his crimes, and the lack of salacious details surrounding his murders.
As filmmaker John R. Hand notes, “The story of Joel Rifkin is often neglected – there’s no extravagant details of ritualized crime scenes, no sordid tales of a warped childhood. Rifkin had a normal upbringing until various obsessions and emotional forces led him to the murder a string of sex workers in the New York area.”
JOEL is the product of over three years worth of intensive research, and Hand boasts that it’s one of the most accurate and in-depth cinematic renderings of the life and crimes of a serial killer ever made.
Told entirely from Joel’s point of view, using his own words from his taped confessions, the film is not your typical serial killer dramatization. Joel’s story is remarkable in how rather unremarkable it all seems. Despite the horror of the crimes, nothing in this film is played for shock value or intrigue. As Joel recites the details of his crimes, he is cool and emotionless, as if he is simply recounting the humdrum details of a normal day at the office.
While Rifkin was bullied as a child, suffered from a learning disability, and struggled to win the affection and approval of his father, there’s nothing particularly sordid or extreme in his background — no clear and defining childhood trauma and no obvious trigger for his crimes. He seems to have stumbled upon his murderous path and even expressed regret at not being able to get the help he needed when he realized he had an uncontrollable impulse to kill.
Whereas most serial killers tend to escalate their crimes as the body count rises — committing more and more gruesome acts, forcing their victims to endure more extreme torture and engaging in increasingly more deviant behavior, Rifkin seemed to kill almost as if by routine in such a swift and matter-of-fact manner. He doesn’t appear to get much of a thrill from the murders, committing them more out of a primal need rather than a strong desire.
As Hand explains, “His surface normality forces us to confront his humanity and makes his crimes even more horrifying.”
If you’re like me and remain endlessly fascinated by the psychology behind the country’s most unconscionable killers, I highly recommend this film. I love that it’s not glamorized or sensationalized in any way. It’s incredibly raw and real, anchored by an absolutely outstanding and chilling performance from Arnold Ono as Rifkin.
“Most films made from the stories of real-life killers take only the basic details of the actual events and then invent their own fictional stories and characters,” says Hand. “The filmmakers frequently invent a specific character, usually a law enforcement figure, who can guide us like children through the world of our killer as a kind of rational window into the world of madness. With Joel, I wanted to strip that away and tell the story directly from the viewpoint of Joel Rifkin with as much authentic detail as possible. I wanted to use his own words taken directly from interviews to weave a fractured portrait of the man, his crimes, and his victims.”
Don’t expect any shocking revelations. There’s no real gore to speak of, and serial killer junkies may find this a bit too tame and restrained for their tastes. In fact, JOEL feels more like a documentary than a feature film. Personally, I enjoyed the stripped down storytelling and appreciated the thoughtful way Hand approached the material.
This film is well researched, thought provoking and brilliantly acted.
You won’t get any real answers as to why Rifkin begins his killing spree, and that’s because there don’t seem to be any answers at all. And that, to me, makes his story all the more troubling and terrifying — as if we to illuminate how dangerously close some people teeter on the edge of sanity and humanity. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact trigger or triggers that turn a man into a monster.
We want answers. We demand to know why. We want to take comfort in knowing there’s some clear and identifiable cause that so distinctly separates a man capable of such horror from the rest of us “normal” people. Otherwise, we’re forced to confront the terrifying possibility that darkness lives in each of us, sometimes closer to the surface then we’d ever care to admit.