Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse

The human soul behind the monster's mask.

Infuriating, tragic, heartbreaking and incendiary in equal measures, Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom’s Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse is a documentary that plays out like a horror film and leaves you absolutely breathless. The story is one familiar to any Portlander who has picked up a newspaper any time in the past seven years: Chasse, crippled by schizophrenia but by all accounts harmless, was beaten by Portland police, died in custody and was the subject of a massive cover-up that portrayed him as a monster. 

Lindstrom's film pieces together an impressive collection of eyewitness accounts and courtroom footage to tell the story of a case that pulled Portland police into national focus, painting a portrait of deceit that rocked our self-image as a gentle hamlet for the creative. What Lindstrom forges is an amazing piece of documentary journalism that's equally focused on the procedural account of Chasse's death and the people whose lives it affected. Everybody except the officers whose fists sealed Chasse's fate offer their remembrances, though officers Kyle Nice, Bret Barton and Christopher Humphreys do appear in archival footage of their trial (each refused to be interviewed). 

But what really hammers Alien Boy home is the Life part of its title. When Chasse was slain, the police falsely labeled him a transient junkie. Lindstrom's film dives deeply into the life of a man who touched countless lives through his art and the pioneering position he held in Portland's early punk-rock scene. Ex-girlfriends, family members, musicians, artists and parishioners from his church all tell of a deeply troubled but caring man whose mental despair robbed him of peace. 

It's this human setup that makes Alien Boy's eventuality all the more difficult, and Humphreys' smug apathy and on-record lies all the more infuriating. Lindstrom has taken a tragedy and emerged with an essential viewing experience. It shows that, once you look past someone's seeming decrepitude, there's a soul beneath that needs to be nourished so it doesn't slip through the cracks. Chasse was starting to slip, but before he fell, his life was extinguished by those charged with protecting him. Lindstrom does a tremendous job showing what we lost as Chasse lay dying on a Pearl District sidewalk: not just a life, but our confidence in those sworn to serve and protect.

Critic's Grade: A

SEE IT: Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse premieres at the Portland International Film Festival at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., at 7 pm Friday, Feb. 15. It also plays at Cinema 21 on Feb. 24-28.

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