Directed by Joel Bender
Written by Michael D. Sellers,
Joel Bender, Manette Beth Rosen
Starring Laura Prepon
If Karla were based on a true-crime story totally unknown to us, the movie, and this review, could be dispensed with in a few simple steps: (1) Credit the filmmakers with ferreting out a story that, in a homicidal genre dominated by men, departs intriguingly from the norm by examining the deadly role played by a woman; (2) Discredit them for the hypocrisy of pretending to a psychological depth that doesn't exist, and for using their examination as little more than a shallow excuse to dramatize, albeit weakly, the story's grisly events; (3) Mention the lead performances (hers adequate and his forgettable), slap on a paltry star or two, and trust that the thing will soon meet its rightful fate in the dusty reaches of the cinematic remainder bin.
That's what the picture deserves. Of course, here in Canada, that's not what the picture is getting. Since Karla is based on true-crime story where every tragic detail is familiar to us, much attention has already been paid. And is still being paid. The media's obsession with the Bernardo/Homolka murders, which may or may not reflect a general obsession, has spawned reams of mediocre journalism posing as insight. Now it spawns a movie that is essentially more of the same, which prompts a review that, by participating in a process it claims to abhor, only adds to the mountain of hypocrisy, and to those feelings of guilty complicity that, for readers and writers alike, come from following a sensational story far too long to too little purpose.
Yes, the crucial question of purpose. For a film, the one valid reason to revisit such horrors is to dip into the well of twisted human nature and return with a thimbleful of . . . what? Of understanding? If so, that's a tall order only an artist, with the imagination to speculate, can fill. But the principals here, with their B-movie Hollywood history, hardly fall into that category. Nor are they looking in the right place. The movie boasts that "every scene was derived from events transcribed in court testimony," yet that treasure-trove has been strip-mined by better journalists than these guys, and to no avail -- at least, not if a measure of understanding is the gold you seek.
Nevertheless, armed with its boast, the screenplay starts with Karla, who's eligible for parole in the eighth year of her incarceration, submitting to an interview with the prison psychiatrist. The shrink is there to express a few selective reservations about her self-serving account and, as mentioned, to give the picture the illusion of psychological substance. Actually, it's all just a cheap frame for the flashbacks to the murders, which, unfolding as they do from Karla's perspective, present her as she has always presented herself -- that is, as an amalgam of infatuated teenager, reluctant villain and, above all, battered and blackmailed victim. Canadian audiences will likely find the portrait excessively sympathetic, a tendency reinforced by the performances -- Laura Prepon, as the perhaps compromised Karla, is a more nuanced actor than Misha Collins, as the thoroughly wicked Bernardo. Such are the dangers when shallow scripts wade into these deeply polluted waters.
Consequently, no audience, Canadian or otherwise, will learn anything here outside of the macabre facts. Worse, they won't feel anything either, not even -- and this is inexcusable -- for the victims themselves. In the dubious name of "good taste," and perhaps in pursuit of a more commercially profitable rating, Joel Bender directs the scenes of sexual torture with a reserve normally confined to network TV. To avoid the visually explicit may be commendable, but Bender still has an obligation to convey the horror through other means, and doesn't. In the cause of sparing our sensibilities, he also denies our emotions. The ironic exception is the violence enacted on Karla by her evil husband -- we see her bruised and bloodied face close-up, further underlining that already suspect circle of sympathy.
Increasingly, in this era of herd journalism, the media can distinguish themselves by what they choose not to cover -- a distinction that readers and viewers can encourage by what they choose not to read or view. Watched by anyone else, and gauged by the usual standards, Karla is merely a mundane movie. However, watched by Canadians, and filtered through our surfeit of experience, it's an inexcusably mundane movie. But only if you choose to watch.