Itinerant Henry and his prison buddy Otis are cold-blooded and chillingly casual murderers. Played by gravelly character actor Michael Rooker, Henry never appears or behaves like anyone out of the ordinary. We get the sense that he hardly ever thinks about murder, except for when he does it. As for Otis, played by the imposing Tom Towles, think of when you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, versus one after your morning coffee and one after dinner. Think of the discipline and organization inherent in the latter. That's Otis's problem kind of, only he's not just the one pack a day, he's about five and the tobacco is laced with children's tears. That's why he truly brings out the things about individuals we never see. He does many unforgivably monstrous things here, but he still manages to go about his business without remorse or fear of getting caught, so we presume he's just a good ol' boy with a short fuse. And he is; he just goes a few steps further than most.
Portrait is not about the thin line between good and evil. Portrait sees no line. There are innumerable films about serial killers. It is a permanent fixture in the Middle American zeitgeist. We fear them, so we turn them into our own bloodthirsty entertainment. They have become mythology for us to use in order to take our morbid curiosities and sadistic fantasies out for a safe spin. Even after this definitive film on the subject, it is not often that a movie dares to portray the real ones, unmitigated by thriller tropes.
John McNaughton and his late collaborator Richard Fire do not feel the need to pigeonhole or explain them, not just as movie characters but as people. Without a frame of compromise, McNaughton defies the hankering to pump up the volume, to frame Henry in chiaroscuro or Otis with Dutch angles. When most human beings see the things that Henry and Otis actually go through with---feeling no other rationale, it would seem, than that it's simply something for them to do---our immediate reaction is to ask how someone could do such things, and why. As Nick Nolte says as a homicide detective in Ole Bornedal's 1997 thriller, "Even when we catch the killer, they wanna know the how and why."
That character would agree with McNaughton and Fire that people like Henry and Otis, are well beyond the need to justify what they do. What explanation could there be for slaughtering an entire random family, while recording the whole incident on a camcorder to then watch it later with the blank beer-chugging catatonia of watching an inning of baseball? Horror films, though designed to scare us, are also designed to make us feel safe. The killer was humiliated by his quarries in high school, or has split personality disorder. This film is not a horror film. Explanations are just a fiction to make us feel safe. This film does not have explanations. It has events, key moments in the lives of guys who like to drink beer, smoke weed, hang out with Otis' sister and kill random strangers.