The prediction that tipped Joey over to besting me in our Cannes Film Festival prediction pool earlier this year was his very astute sense that Zar Amir-Ebrahimi would win the Prix D’interprétation Feminine for the true crime drama Holy Spider. Thankfully, it’s starting to expand wide in the United States, and you can count on us at Awards Radar to provide you a review as soon as reaches us.
In anticipation of its expansion, I want to take a moment to lay out how I, personally, evaluate movies in this milieu that I worry is becoming oversaturated. There is a “gold standard” I apply when I think of the kinds of stories these movies about serial killers “should” be about, and what I’d prefer they focus on to avoid being luridly self-indulgent. Because Emma Berquist is right: true crime is rotting our brains. There aren’t too many movies that dip into this well and come out as something worth remembering. Sometimes, they’re so-bad-it’s-good harmless trash like Criminal Minds, which is such a consistent, almost comfortingly ridiculous show that it’s impossible not to enjoy the barrage of borderline-parody nonsense it offers. Other times, they’re actively hurtful to the families of the victims and perpetuate offensively romantic notions of murderers as cool, calculating bad-asses instead of what they really are: weak, emotionally-stunted men with impulse control problems.
But that doesn’t mean movies about real-life serial killers can’t be made into good, even great works. In fact, three directors with wildly different aesthetic sensibilities pulled it off, and provided what I like to call the “Holy Trinity” of real-life serial killer movies*:
The key to why these movies succeed where so many others fail is in what they focus on. Or, more accurately, what they don’t focus on. The killer himself is not even close to the most prominent character in these movies. There’s no attempt to “get into the mind” of them. We don’t wallow in gratuitous depravity. Because that’s not what we should be paying attention to in looking back at these horrible murder sprees.
Fincher, Bong, and Lee guide our attention to everything going on around the murderer. These movies are about the era these killers operated in, the cities they terrorized, the culture they influenced, the flaws of the justice systems trying to catch them, and the people whose lives were consumed by these brutal crimes. It’s in those peripheral details that we actually find things worth learning about.
Memories of Murder is the most dubiously connected to true events, though there absolutely was a serial killer who sexually assaulted and killed several women in Hwaseong in the late 1980’s. He was later convicted of one murder, but it wasn’t until long after the statute of limitations had passed that he confessed (and confirmed by DNA testing) to all the other murders as well. The reason he got away with it for so long was because of just how nonexistent forensic science and investigative procedures for these kinds of crimes were in South Korea 35 years ago. The amazing thing about Memories of Murder is how often it evokes frustration and despair over every scene of evidence being tainted and every head-slapping approach to suspect interrogation made by Park Doo-man. The horror of Memories of Murder is the horror of thinking you know what you’re doing in a high-stakes situation and slowly realizing you don’t have a clue.
Zodiac hews closer to facts of the eponymous killer, specifically from the perspective of the editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith as his life is eventually ruined by his quest to discover who is the true “Zodiac killer.” We see him interact with a whole cast of reporters, forensic analysts, and police detectives as they, too, see their lives consumed by the search for the identity of this killer. We see how news media devours the breadcrumbs the killer leaves with his taunting letters and artifacts of his crimes, and how pop culture jumps in with a Dirty Harry movie featuring a similar villain. Violent crime is far less prevalent now than it was during the time period Zodiac is set in, but can anyone really say our collective fixation and parasocial attachment to every detail of these shocking crimes are any different now than back then?
And then there’s Summer of Sam, possibly Spike Lee’s most underrated joint. Like Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac, we do see David Berkowitz in brief scenes, but he is not the main character. Our protagonists are Vinny and Ritchie, working-class men in the Bronx who experience their neighborhood boil over into tension and paranoia as the “Son of Sam” killings escalate. Vinny goes through something that almost resembles an anti-arc, since he’s set up to interpret his near-death blind luck avoidance of becoming Berkowitz’s latest victim into cleaning up his act and being a better husband to Dionna, only to heartbreakingly fall back into the same sexual insecurities and unfaithfulness as before. Meanwhile, poor Ritchie sees everyone turn on him and suspect him of the murders because he’s different and “weird.” Berkowitz is apprehended in the end, but there’s no catharsis, no final climax where he’s caught just before he kills his last victim. Just heartbreak.
None of these movies were big hits at the box office. I suspect movies based on horrific crimes still in living memory don’t sell well if they can’t provide those prurient highs to lazy, cynical tragedy porn peddlers like Emily D. Baker and Nancy Grace. But time has treated these movies very well and all three have small-but-dedicated cult followings. Partially this is due to their outstanding filmmaking craftsmanship, but also their thematic interests are more enlightening, more thoughtful and complex, and ultimately scarier. Because they’re not about one killer. They’re about us.
* Monster, the movie that won Charlize Theron a well-deserved Best Lead Actress Oscar, could be considered a fourth one, though it’s so different from every other true crime movie in so many respects that I don’t feel 100% comfortable including it in the same company as Zodiac, Memories of Murder, and Summer of Sam, though it is every bit as affecting and thoughtful.