Kreizler is called in by the police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) as the mutilated corpses of boy prostitutes begin turning up in Lower Manhattan. Investigating the murders at all is something of a radical act. The sex trade involves the interests of powerful men, and the rank-and-file police can hardly be troubled to care about dead urchins.
Instead, Kreizler enlists a New York Times illustrator, John Moore (Luke Evans), and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a police secretary whose ambitions of becoming a detective meet with the contempt of her male colleagues.
They form a kind of turn-of-the-century geek squad, employing criminal psychology — a field still separating itself from quackery — and such newfangled techniques as fingerprint collection, which the police eschew in favor of old-fashioned beatings.
Arguably the most compelling crime in “The Alienist” is in plain sight: the exploitation of poor children, who are seen as expendable precisely because of how they’re exploited. A police officer refers to one of the victims as “it,” because “what else would you call a degenerate who dresses himself as a girl for the pleasure of grown men?”
Mr. Brühl puts a peculiar, intense spin on a now-familiar figure: the investigator who has to mind-meld with a monster. “Only if I become him,” he says, “if I cut the child’s throat myself, if I run my knife through the helpless body and pluck the innocent eyes from a horrified face, only then will I come to truly understand what I am.”
That speech is played for creeps, and like much of “The Alienist,” it would be twice as good with half as much lurid, Grand Guignol underlining.
“The Alienist” isn’t prettified — the first camera push-in on an empty eye socket makes that clear — but neither is it grittily realistic. It aims for a kind of hazy laudanum dream of old Manhattan (played by Budapest). The patina is haunting, but it so forcefully says, “This is history,” that it fights against the characters’ sense of living at the edge of a bracing scientific future (something “The Knick” captured well).
Still, the attention to detail makes for a vivid picture of city life at a time of staggering wealth and shocking poverty. And “The Alienist” can be a captivating forensic history, if you’re not put off by, say, researchers testing the damage a certain knife can do to a cow’s orbital socket. Just don’t expect it to show you the serial-killer drama through new eyes.