A Law & Order unto himself: Vincent D'Onofrio has turned Criminal Intent into his star vehicle
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 June 2004)

Robert Goren, an intellectual giant among detectives, comes across like the very model of an eccentric genius. His personality, exhibited every Sunday night in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, amounts to a wondrous cluster of tics, tricks and compulsions. He speaks in an odd combination of stutter and fluency, sometimes to pretend he's unsure of himself, which he never is.

A friend of mine has named him Tilthead because he has a geekish way of inclining his head; a minor character on the show called him "the man with the broken neck." Sometimes he twists his body at the waist, aligning his upper torso with the floor. When interrogating a possible felon, he wanders around the room, moving with the relentless grace of a bear, coming up behind the suspect as if ambushing him.

He's the oddest of the many characters introduced through that empire of storytelling, Law & Order. Dick Wolf created the classic Law & Order 14 years ago, added Law & Order: Special Victims Unit nine years later, and in 2001 brought us Goren and Criminal Intent. Wolf has discovered an insatiable appetite for his crime shows, in cable reruns as well as network showings.

It's now clear that Law & Order won't be stopped in our time. It's like the legendary cane toad in Australia, which has no natural predator and reproduces infinitely. Next season, Wolf will bring on another spinoff, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, set in a courtroom. The other three series are all renewed through the 2005-06 season. No doubt a digital TV channel showing only L&O lies somewhere in the future.

Actors are interchangeable in the first two series, as the producers have demonstrated by replacing some of the best without missing a beat. Those shows ride on formats and scripts, not performers. But you can't imagine Criminal Intent without Vincent D'Onofrio as Goren. D'Onofrio has made the show his star vehicle, and often his acting is its major attraction.

Over three seasons, he's developed his Goren into the most extravagant and fanciful performance on weekly television. He's invented a kind of TV baroque, ornate and complex. For D'Onofrio, no gesture is too exaggerated, no body movement too grotesque. He's made gesticulating a personal art form.

Those who know him only as Goren may think he's always been this way. In fact, D'Onofrio is a journeyman character actor who can dominate a scene or melt into the background, on command. He played the screenwriter who got killed in Robert Altman's The Player and an alien bug trying to destroy the world in Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black. He shaved his head and added 70 pounds to play the murderous and suicidal Private Pyle for Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket. In 1997, he gave a bravura performance on Homicide: Life on the Street, as a character trapped under a subway car. Pinned down for the whole hour, he nevertheless left the audience with vivid memories of an angry, impatient man slowly realizing that everyone was being so nice to him because they knew he wasn't getting out from the under the train alive.

Detective First Grade Robert Goren is the invention of Rene Balcer, a Montrealer and McGill graduate who wrote for the old Montreal Star in the 1970s, spent the 1980s as a writer in Hollywood, and joined Law & Order when it began in 1990. Balcer established the facts of Goren's life and then let D'Onofrio flesh him out.

Professionally, Goren is Sherlock Holmes transferred to the 21st century, with the same know-it-all confidence and the same ingenious solutions to apparently insoluble crimes. A woman detective plays Dr. Watson's role, but, unlike Watson, has the nerve to call the master a geek. Goren has crammed his brain with Holmes-level knowledge about everything from biology to consumer products. He knows when each model of the Rolex watch first appeared, and understands how to fake your participation in an online computer game by having a robot play your part (while you commit murder). Also like Holmes, he relies on exquisitely tuned intuition.

As usual with L&O, we learn about Goren in bits and pieces. We know he's a lapsed Catholic, once an altar boy. He took college psychology courses, prefers Lucien Freud's painting to Impressionism, knows how to make a bouillabaisse, and in his youth learned to love classic cars; he applies the adjective "sweet" to certain rare automobiles. He picked up German in the army and has a smattering of other languages, including Arabic. He's left-handed. He has keen sense of smell.

He's a born brooder and a born show-off who has miraculously discovered a way to make a living by brooding while showing off. He's also a loner who, like many a loner before him, has found colleagues who appreciate him enough to view his smug braininess with amused and affectionate wonder. A strain of tragedy runs through him, the result of a schizophrenic mother and an absent father. D'Onofrio has said, "I see him as coming from a pretty dark place." We understand that Goren has a keen sense of right and wrong, but might easily have gone the other way.

Goren can see into the criminal mind because he understands the evil in himself. He's not the first fictional detective to deploy that kind of knowledge, but in Goren it takes an unusually self-conscious form. In an early show, Balcer had him remark, "Bad guys do what good guys dream." Tom Shales of The Washington Post called that an example of Goren's philosophy, and it's been quoted a few dozen times since by Goren admirers in chatrooms, always as a sign of his wisdom. A British critic recently said it defines Goren's acute perceptivenes; his dreams teach him the causes and meanings of crime.

It's not exactly an original phrase; Robert I. Simon of Georgetown University called his 1996 book Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream: A Forensic Psychiatrist Illuminates the Darker Side of Human Behavior. But then, Goren never claims originality. That notion may have helped him understand both himself and his criminal targets, but it's just one of the multitude of insights he picked up along the way and stored in his enormous computer brain, ready for accessing as needed.

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