The Light of Reason
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Director: Rob Bowman
Editor: Heather MacDougall
Icepicks again? I’ve felt squeamish during episodes of “The X-Files”, but I never actually found myself reaching for the remote in the first act before. This one nearly did it for me. The idea of an icepick coming within, oh, a couple of light-years of my eye is too much. Ack! Vince Gilligan delivers a devastatingly ooky X-File in “Unruhe”. Gilligan likes to write for Scully, obviously, as she usually comes across more strongly in his episodes than any except Chris Carter himself. Between “Pusher” and “Unruhe”, I’m beginning to wonder if Gilligan doesn’t have a thing for brains. And he and Carter have cornered the market on icepicks as weapons.
“Unruhe” opens with a deceptively simple teaser, with a nervous couple pulling up to a drugstore for a quick passport photo. Within minutes, one of them is dead from an icepick through the ear and the other has been abducted, leaving behind a Polaroid with a nightmare image of a screaming woman on it. This was one of the best “boo” teasers I’ve seen in a while from “The X-Files”: a banal, almost boring teaser that ends in a one-two punch that left me saying “Wow!” Mulder’s take on the odd photograph is that it is an example of “thoughtography”, surely one of the strangest junctures of the paranormal and modern technology ever conceived. Supposedly, the killer/kidnapper is leaving “thoughtprints” in the form of exposed Polaroids that show what was in his mind–images of the screaming victim, surrounded by demonic icons. The victim from the teaser is quickly found–alive, but having suffered an amateur lobotomy. In short order, another victim is abducted after a similar icepick murder, and this time Scully links the two murder sites to a construction company performing work nearby. Theorizing that the women were stalked by a construction worker, she ventures (alone) to meet the foreman, and in a chilling phone conversation with Mulder conducted in the foreman’s presence, she learns that the man she is alone in the house with is their suspect. I was yelling at her to call for backup at this point, especially given The X-Files’ tendency to get Scully into kidnapping situations. Gilligan cleverly gets her out of that potentially dangerous setup, only to get Scully abducted later on.
A tip of the hat to director Rob Bowman and editor Heather MacDougall for a tightly drawn story. The timing of the entire episode was excellent, from the sock-em teaser to the moment when, simultaneously, Scully is abducted and Mulder finds her face in a “thought print”. I especially liked the phone call between Mulder and Scully, where even as he is telling her to be on the lookout for an especially long legged suspect we see Gerry Schnauz’s stilts in the background. What a spine-tingling moment that is, as the truth dawns on us and Scully at the same time. Mulder’s desperate concentration on the thought-photo as he tried to puzzle out her whereabouts, Bowman’s fabulous overhead-crane shot on Scully as she fell, and the wonderfully unsettling photographs put the artistic aspects of this episode in the top rank of the series. And I must mention the beautiful closeups in this episode, rivalling David Nutter’s for their stark beauty.
Vince Gilligan has a genius for tight confrontation scenes, from his own movie “Wilder Napalm” to last season’s X-File, “Pusher“. Tonight’s scenes with Scully strapped to a chair while a madman threatens her sight, her sanity, and her life were some of the most harrowing I have seen in a while. I was delighted when Gilligan let Mulder save his partner using the one weapon he uses least of all–his training in psychology. By “getting inside” the murderer’s weird mindscape, Mulder was able to decipher the clues that led him to her rescue.
Pruitt Taylor Vince’s portrayal of Gerry, the schizophrenic with the googly eyes, was properly creepy. His change from the hapless innocent to the off-center and strange individual who tried to “save” women from the Howlers in his own head was convincing and frightening. His increasing loss of eye muscle control mirrored his increasing loss of self control. It was like watching a Polaroid of a familiar face dissolve into something quite different and terrifying. His use of a flannel nightie to re- create his sister’s trauma in his victims was just the touch of madness needed to put the finish on this character. Watching Scully attempt to reason with the unreasonable was nerve-wracking.
Gillian Anderson got to show off her patented tough- Scully-in-restraints once more. I was going to complain that Scully got abducted again, making this what, the seventh or eighth time for this event, but then I remembered that her partner was kidnapped and drugged last week. Maybe we are just watching tag-team victimization here. David Duchovny let Anderson take center stage as she confronted a kidnapper. Mulder’s dry wit was on display, however. In reference to the aged druggist: “Which one of us gets to use the stun gun on Bruno Hauptmann over there?” And Mulder’s gentle teasing of the relentlessly logical Scully, who is drawing conclusions and closing the case almost before it starts, are a fine payback for her joshing of Mulder in “Home“.
I had some trouble with Scully’s restraints: if I was duct-taped to a chair through my suit jacket I’d make sure to wiggle out of the jacket and damn the tailored seams. However, Gilligan managed to make so absurd a premise as thought photography work for me. He did this by making it a side issue, a fillip added to what was otherwise a creepy and engaging detective story. This was the kind of X- File I like to see: a horror/detective story in which the horror is the sauce, not the main course.
All in all this was a taut and well-put-together X- File, the kind we have come to expect from Vince Gilligan. I give it four out of five sunflower seeds.