We never grow tired of murder stories. That’s a fact. And another fact, plain as a poke in your eye, is that the arrival of streaming services caused an explosive interest in true-crime murder stories.
The genre expanded and mushroomed because of the insatiable need of Netflix and other platforms for new content. Often riding on the coattails of existing podcasts that explored, in dense detail, the stories of real people caught in murder investigations, the true-crime arena became exploitative and at times ridiculous.
So much so that the satirical website The Onion created a parody podcast, A Very Fatal Murder. In it, an earnest young man visits small-town United States to solve the death of “a pretty young girl called Hayley Price,” asking, “So, what happened to Hayley Price? And how can I get in on this story?”
Here are two non-exploitative classics, both as strange and even more twisting than Making a Murderer or other examples of the genre you know already.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Crave/HBO) has an unnerving quality and there is something uniquely chilling about its subject, Durst himself.
The start is as bizarre as the ending. A segment of Durst’s complex history was the basis for the 2010 movie All Good Things. In it, Ryan Gosling plays a Durst-like man and Kirsten Dunst plays his wife, a woman who disappears and her husband is the suspect.
Director Andrew Jarecki was amazed when, before the film opened, he heard from Durst, who wanted to talk. Previously, Durst had declined to talk to any media. To say that Jarecki, more famous for his documentaries than his feature movies – he made the classic Capturing the Friedmans – was intrigued, would be an understatement.
So began an elaborate dance as Jarecki interviewed Durst and probed deeply into this complicated man’s history. Durst, it seems, was enchanted by the idea of manipulating his way to a certain kind of stardom. As the heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, he had, among other escapades, enjoyed a period as a cross-dressing alter ego named Dorothy Ciner. Notorious in certain New York circles, and accused of crimes, he evaded conviction because of a cunningly created public persona.
What viewers see is what Harvard law professor Noah Feldman has called, “The fascinating human strangeness unleashed by the era of reality television." Feldman has written about the matter because, as he and other legal experts see it, it is possible to argue that Durst, in The Jinx, was giving a performance, in adherence with the norms and rules of reality television. Accused of multiple murders, he was, perhaps, embellishing and heightening to make a better TV production.
This makes the circumstance of The Jinx mind-boggling. Anyone who watches it – and everybody should – gets an illumination of that peculiar place where fantasy, fact and fiction blend together. As a person, Durst cannot be categorized and neither can this stunning series about him. There is layer upon layer of intricate meaning and the theatre of it is astonishing.
The Staircase (Netflix) is the mother of all true-crime documentary series. In the matter of newspaper columnist and novelist Michael Peterson, and the alleged murder of his wife, Kathleen, and possibly another person, the story has gone onward and onward since the beginning.
The series is not just formidably compelling but hugely influential. Every much binged and much discussed true-crime series has borrowed from the style of investigation established by this, a project that began in 2001. In fact, The Staircase has been called the Citizen Kane of true-crime documentary series.
It was in 2001 that Peterson says he found his wife at the bottom of the stairs in their home, Kathleen bleeding and close to death. He called 911. When paramedics and police arrived, she was dead, and from that point on, suspicion fell on Peterson. His wife seemed to have lacerations on her head, marks that did not fit, in instant scrutiny, with a fall down the stairs.
Attention was focused on a fireplace poker that prosecutors said they believed was used to bludgeon her. Peterson was indicted. From early in the indictment process, Oscar-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and a crew were given access to Peterson and his defence team.
The trial was documented with an attention to detail and thoroughness that was, at the time, highly unusual. The Staircase aired in France and on the BBC in Britain in 2004. The eight-hour version aired on Sundance TV in the United States and won a Peabody Award.
In 2013, de Lestrade returned to the case, which had so many twists it demanded more attention. Then he added three new hours to the coverage, and on Netflix you get the full 13-episode story. It is one convoluted, bewildering and thorny true story.
The level of detail is astonishing – not a scintilla of the storyline is tossed aside. Neither The Jinx nor The Staircase is a cobbled-together crime story about real people; both tower over the genre.
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