Serial killers are fascinating; their acts are repulsive but you can't help wonder what makes them tick. Yet what's marvelous about "Appropriate Adult" (10 tonight, Sundance Channel) isn't that it lets you into the mind of a serial killer. Instead, what's revealed in the film is the perilous vulnerability of that attraction to them.
"Adult" is the true story of Brits Fred West (Dominic West) and his wife Rose (Monica Dolan) who murdered about a dozen women, including two of their children, over a decade. When the film opens, Fred West has been under suspicion for a while, so when the police bring him in this time, after his daughter disappears, they request an 'appropriate adult,' a person who sits in with vulnerable suspects during police interviews to look after their interest.
That role goes to Janet Leach (Emily Watson), a struggling mother with a manic-depressive partner, and it's her first assignment ever. Although, as she asserts, she has done the training, it's clear pretty quickly that managing a serial killer should not be a first assignment.
Slowly, but masterfully, we witness Fred tap into Janet's need to feel valued. It's not that he's a genius manipulator; in his first sit-down with the police it becomes clear that he's a deeply troubled liar. But he also seems to have an innate ability to read weakness; Fred can see right away how important the role of 'appropriate adult' is to Janet, that she needs to be in that room with him. He feeds into that need by sharing confidences he knows she can't reveal and refusing to talk to police when she's not around. This makes her important and draws her into the case and into Fred's life.
West disgusts and entrances as Fred. He's a man child, unattractive and needy, pathetic and foolish and petulant. The script doesn't explain his behavior; it's inexplicable, after all. Instead, we watch West with enough distance to see the spell he's putting on Janet, and yet we get drawn in just as she does. Watson, too, mesmerizes. You can see her slowly making mistake after mistake, and yet you can understand why she's doing it and why it's hard for her to stop.
What's scary is that she's a strong woman weakened by a neediness she can't fully explain. That's a place we've all been.