True-crime documentaries that tell more about us than the victims
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 24, 2024

True-crime documentaries that tell more about us than the victims
Two new movies reflect the range of quality in the booming genre. They also raise questions about why we are drawn to such stories.

by Alissa Wilkinson

NEW YORK, NY.- Remember the old “Arrested Development” axiom that “there’s always money in the banana stand”? For streamers, that banana stand is true crime, judging from the rate at which these movies are turned out. Many of the lurid tales of kidnapping, murder and stolen identities have been covered already in podcasts, but documentaries add tantalizing visual elements — photographs of the deceased, talking-head interviews, archival footage — that apparently keep fans coming back.

Of course, as entertainment goes, this is nothing new. Flicking through cable stations years ago would reveal plenty of documentaries and docudramas that retold similar tales. What’s changed is how bingeable they are — you can listen to endless podcasts and watch endless streaming shows, one after the other — and, perhaps as significantly, how the anonymity of the internet has become a key feature of both the crime and the investigation.

Two recent releases fit this mold, and also indicate the quality range of these kinds of films, from passable to genuinely revelatory. (Both, incidentally, have already gotten the podcast treatment at least once.)

On the lesser end is the Netflix documentary “Lover, Stalker, Killer,” directed by Sam Hobkinson, which recounts the ordeal that a man named Dave Kroupa went through when he started receiving strange, menacing messages from an ex-girlfriend he met through dating apps. The tale is mildly twisty, and Kroupa and several others participate in the documentary, which makes it watchable. But the major turn happens far from the end of the film, and it’s hard to maintain tension after that. Most of the filmmaking feels perfunctory, too. Yet, as New York Times critic Glenn Kenny put it in his review, “By now these are accepted conventions, so there’s little point in complaining.”

My expectations weren’t all that high for the Max documentary “They Called Him Mostly Harmless,” directed by Patricia E. Gillespie, about a dead hiker found in Florida’s Big Cypress Natural Preserve. He was emaciated and had no identification on him but, curiously, did have food and cash. Trying to identify his body, law enforcement found itself at a standstill, with no idea who he was.

But I liked it, and what I liked most is what Times critic Beatrice Loayza points out in her review: It’s not really about the identification itself. In fact, for stretches of the film, you kind of forget that there’s a corpse at the center of it all. Instead, it’s a movie about the culture of true-crime internet sleuths and, perhaps more keenly, why anyone would want to do that sleuthing in the first place. There’s a layer beneath that, too: the question of why we get so hooked on mysterious victims. In a late twist, “They Called Him Mostly Harmless” questions the certainties that onlookers, uninvolved in a person’s life, project onto true-crime stories.

That’s what makes me interested in this kind of documentary, because the real tale is rarely just about the crime. The best documentaries turn the camera back on us, asking why we’re interested in the first place. The stories we tell about one another reveal more about us than them.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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