‘McVeigh’ Review: A Drama About the Oklahoma City Bomber Has Low-Key Sociopathic Atmosphere to Spare (2024)

McVeigh,” a drama about Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, is a movie rooted in the forlorn underbelly of small-town American rage.

A car snakes its way along an empty road in the desolate dusk. Men nursing cheap beers sit around in roadside bars, strips clubs, or living rooms with ugly wood paneling. And Tim (Alfie Allen), an impassive loner whose scraggly beard is an outgrowth of his not bothering to shave, sits behind his table at a gun show, hawking $2 bumper stickers that say “When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw.” At home, he points a weapon at the TV set, like Travis Bickle, miming the execution of the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as she testifies at hearings about the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. Tim also travels to an Arkansas prison to visit Richard Wayne Snell (Tracy Letts), a white supremacist who is about be executed for a pair of homicides, both racially motivated.

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Snell, more than 10 years before, had planned to blow up the Federal Building himself, and an understanding gradually passes between him and McVeigh that Tim is going to pick up the mantle and finally accomplish this “patriotic” act. But it’s never said very explicitly.

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Nothing in “McVeigh” is. McVeigh and Snell —it’s one of the film’s conjectures that these two were ever in contact — have to keep their sentiments on the down-low, because they’re talking on prison phones, but everyone in the movie communicates with a gruff minimalism, as if they were speaking in code. There are scenes with McVeigh and his friend, Terry Nichols (Brett Gelman), with whom he planned the Oklahoma City bombing, but even when they’re purchasing bags of nitromethane and piling it into a storage shed, they’re not exactly chatty about how any of this is going to go down. The monosyllabic sullenness is meant to convey something to the viewer: the gaping distance between what these people were actually doing ­(engaging in an action that was sociopathic, homicidal, and utterly senseless) and what they thought they were doing (using terrorism to nurture “the tree of liberty”).

The way “McVeigh” proceeds, Tim comes off as an outgrowth of his surroundings —the desolate rural heartland America that had begun to turn anti-American. Yet that image, in many ways, does not match the reality of Timothy McVeigh, who was born and raised in New York State, and who became a rather active nomad, moving from Arizona to Kansas to Michigan and back to Arizona, all in search of something. Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones,” “John Wick”), the British actor who plays Tim, creates the convincing surface of a man lost in a fog of impotent wrath, but McVeigh, in his letters and other writings, was quite articulate about what he thought was happening to America, and I have to assume that he sometimes voiced those thoughts, at length, in words. But that neverhappens in the film, because it would impinge on the desolation-row atmosphere that the director, Mike Ott, is going for.

There is, at this point, a kind of true-life indie-thriller genre about men who are infamous killers, where the films are subjective portraits that ask us to walk in the shoes of human monsters. I’m thinking of movies like “Dahmer” (2002), the film that put Jeremy Renner on the map; “Chapter 27” (2007), a look at the hideous journey of Mark David Chapman; and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019), in which Zac Efron played Ted Bundy (superbly). These films have sometimes been accused of exploitation, but the time is more than right for a movie like “McVeigh,” which records how its subject’s descent into terrorism was propelled by the ideas of the new right-wing zealotry.

It’s axiomatic that anyone who commits a criminal act as monumental as the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people (19 of them children), is mentally unsound. Yet McVeigh spent several years drinking in the new right-wing extremism. The guns-equal-freedom absolutism (a viewpoint of fanatical paranoia since no one on the side of gun-control law is threatening to cancel the Second Amendment); the idea that the siege of Waco was unjustified “government intrusion” and that David Koresh was a martyr (in fact, it was he who set off incendiary devices inside the compound); the white-supremacist rage that underlies the whole movement: It’s much clearer now than it was in 1995 that McVeigh was feeding off a matrix of ideas that were crossing over into the American mainstream.

This is a reality that’s been powerfully captured in works like the documentary “Oklahoma City” (2017) and Jeffrey Toobin’s book “Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism” (2023). And it’s there in “McVeigh,” though the film communicates it in a passive, non-verbal way. I wish we got to see McVeigh showing up at Waco during the siege (it could have been a powerful flashback), as a way of dramatizing how he plugged into the homegrown nihilist/anarchist/ Christian-separatist “community.”

Tracy Letts brings a real consciousness to his performance as Richard Wayne Snell; the prison talk between him and Tim is riveting. On the other hand, the drama grows murkier when Tim, at a gun show, meets the enigmatic French-Canadian Frédéric (Anthony Carrigan), who proceeds to recruit him for…something. Tim travels to the compound that Frédéric is connected to, which appears to be a family-friendly neo-Nazi cult. But none of this comes to much, and so we’re never entirely sure why it’s in the movie. Tim’s relationship with Cindy (Ashley Benson), who falls for him but who he then turns a cold shoulder to after she makes the mistake of looking through one of his closed-door rooms, stands in for his failure to establish human connection. He’s most connected to Terry Nichols, who Brett Gelman endows with a humanizing anxiety, especially as the bombing approaches. In fact, he can’t go through with it, which is why Tim ends up doing it as a lone-wolf operation.

We see Tim driving the rented Ryder truck, stuffed with chemical explosives and fertilizer, on that fateful morning, and the film leave him at a stop light. We never see him park the truck next to the Federal Building. That’s a poetic choice made by the filmmaker, but coming out of “McVeigh,” what I felt most is that for all the ominous pull of the atmosphere and of Alfie Allen’s performance, there’s too much that we don’t see.

‘McVeigh’ Review: A Drama About the Oklahoma City Bomber Has Low-Key Sociopathic Atmosphere to Spare (2024)


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