There is probably a reason why a TV movie about the women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside who were preyed upon by serial killer Robert Pickton airs at short notice on CBC on a Saturday night in July. The reasons are probably tangled and too complex to get into.
Unclaimed (Saturday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is based on Stevie Cameron's book On the Farm, is directed by Rachel Talalay (who has done episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who), has a significantly large Canadian cast and it should be a major event. It isn't, because the movie, which has also had theatrical screenings under the title On the Farm, is a wildly uneven mess of a production.
There's a dutiful on-screen warning about the subject matter, which in this case is justified. There is also an on-screen note from the producers to explain, obviously, that the intention is not to exploit the victims and it says, "We do not pretend to portray the complex reality." That's fair enough.
The upshot, mind you, is that the two-hour movie veers from compelling, complex portrayal of a nightmare scenario to scenes that are awkwardly over-explanatory and rudely unsubtle.
It is certainly worth your time, though. The movie (written by Dennis Foon) can sometimes seem to flounder between half-thriller and partly socially-conscious documentary about life on the streets, but it eventually establishes a narrative path that leads to the Pickton farm and the revelation that solves the mystery of why so many women were missing.
There's a remarkable performance by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who plays Nikki, an addict and sex worker whose encounter with Pickton became key to the case. Her story is layered, rich in detail about her life and family and that is something that few other characters get. Nikki is also representative, in that there were many women like her who came and went, and hardly anyone cared.
The other exceptional performance is by Sara Canning (who has been a regular on The Vampire Diaries and Global's Remedy) as police officer Sinead McLeod, a woman who faces all manner of dismissive belligerence when she insists, early on, that there is a pattern to the disappearances of women from downtown Vancouver. It takes some time, but McLeod becomes an utterly compelling figure here.
Everything starts with overemphasis on the police and other authorities' blithe disregard for the growing number of missing women. A concerned detective (Patrick Gallagher) wants to take one case further but is told, "There's nothing left in the budget."
When a body is found, a senior cop barks, "Take Jane Doe and put her in the storage locker and get on with some real cases." A profiler, someone who can figure out there's a pattern and where it might lead, is loathed by other cops. A senior officer says of the women who are missing, "There are no bodies, no evidence and, therefore, no crime." And then there's the scorching line, "For all we know, these women could be in Calgary."
While much or most of this might be anchored in what actually happened, it is dramatized in the sort of maladroit manner that makes the viewer believe they're watching a quick-and-dirty take on the story. The early sections could have done with being drained of the obvious melodrama.
Perhaps the context is just too much. We now know so much more about the missing and murdered women. We now know, to our discontent, how long some of those involved knew the women were being murdered. We know how long it took to transcend the tunnel vision of local police and we know the horror of what was eventually discovered.
In any case, Unclaimed is worth seeing. The Pickton character barely appears and the attention is, rightly, on the addicts and sex workers and the handful of cops who understood from the start that the matter of missing women deserved serious scrutiny.
But the movie, at two hours, is too short. The story demands a multipart series of greater subtlety than what is delivered here.
Also airing this weekend
Vice Principals (Sunday, HBO, 10:30 p.m.) is a new comedy that is all drollery but occasionally succumbs to crudeness. The series comes from Danny McBride and Jody Hill, who also co-created Eastbound & Down. Here, McBride plays high school vice-principal Neal Gamby, who along with sometime enemy Lee Russell (Walton Goggins from Justified and The Shield) are seriously put out when they are overlooked for promotion. So they develop a loathing for the new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), whom everyone else thinks is perfect. The comedy is anchored in the desperate viciousness and occasional, hilarious stupidity of mediocrities.