Split Decision: True Crime

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

In honor of American Animals, what your favorite “true crime” film?

One crime: Three films. The Leopold Loeb thrill killing was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, and Tom Kalin’s Swoon. What is great is how they each take a different, and highly-stylized approach to the same crime, offering an almost prismatic response to a senseless murder. ROPE was Hitchcock’s single-take experiment, and features coded messages about homosexuality in the exchanges between the murderers Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger); Compulsion featured a memorable opening scene, and a trio of strong performances by Orson Welles as the lawyer for killers Judd (Dean Stockwell) and Arthur (Bradford Dillman). Swoon is Tom Kalin’s swoon-inducing version of the crime that plays up the queer content the previous films could not. Shot in luminous black and white, it was a key film in the New Queer Cinema movement and it still holds up decades later. All three are classics. —Gary M. Kramer

Heavenly Creatures. Peter Jackson, long-known for his comedy-horror films, was brought the idea for the film by his partner in life and business Fran Walsh. It’s based on the Parker-Hulme murder case that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954, where Pauline Parker (aged 16) and her best friend Juliet Hulme (aged 15), murdered Pauline’s mother, Honorah Parker. The film stars a very young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as Juliet and Pauline respectively. The film is creepy, and both leads do an amazing job depicting the dark, fantastical, and co-dependent relationship the girls had that led them to murder. I was thinking about this film earlier this year, when Thoroughbreds came out, another film about female manipulation and co-dependency. Not that I’m complaining.–

I like and will defend Jack Black, and am glad that when he starred as the killer in a true crime movie, it was for Bernie. When funny people go serious, i.e. Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, another recent true crime great, we’re usually supposed to be in awe of how against type they’re playing. A dozen of Robin Williams’ best roles were for dark movies, and every time, people were like “You won’t believe it’s Mrs. Doubtfire in World’s Greatest Dad!” Bernie is great because Jack Black both Jack Blacks it up and shoots a woman (Shirley MacLaine, always perfect). He’s so charming, and MacLaine is so good at playing an abusive old lady, that we’re put in the same predicament the story’s real characters were stuck in– What do we make of how badly we want to excuse this guy for the terrible crime he clearly committed?

Goodfellas is my real favorite, but good luck trying to say anything original about Goodfellas.

The clear choice is Zodiac, but I will let someone else have that if they want. For this I will go with The Snowtown Murders, or just Snowtown as some call it. It’s an Australian film from 2011 directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed), about a string of gruesome murders that happened in South Australia in the 90’s. The film is grainy and digital, shot in a documentary style- showing nothing more than we need to know. It simply traps us with John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), the cunning and sadistic leader of the small crew carrying out the killings, in his element. He is angry, violent, homophobic and hateful, and convinces his followers to commit the violence out of a need to clean up their community and protect a sense of moral decency. At its core though it’s a movie about Bunting and a mentally challenged boy named Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) who he takes under his wing. It is shocking to see what humans can be convinced to do, if their belief, or their vulnerability, is strong enough.–Andy Elijah

Not saying Zodiac will likely haunt me, but for this one I’m going to go with Badlands, Terrence Malick’s directorial debut. Inspired by the real-life killers Charles Starkweather and Ann Fugate, Badlands follows the rebellious, older Kit (Martin Sheen) and the young, impressionable Holly (Sissy Spacek) as they fall in love and go on a crime spree together. The film is much more simple in scope than Malick’s more recent endeavors, although his touch is undeniably present. To call this movie simple, though, is to completely disregard the film’s rich aesthetic and amazing performances. This incredibly intriguing plot is almost too bizarre to be real.–Catherine Haas

I was surprised at how difficult this weeks split decision was, not realizing how largely true-crime loomed in the films I love. The most salient in my mind – partly because it endures since I saw it in 2012 and partly because Criterion just gave it the release it deserved – is Christian Mungui’s Beyond The Hills. This gripping, slowburning, spacious and unvarnished film erects a morally/ethically/emotionally complex scaffold around the accidental death of a young woman during an exorcism in a remote orthodox Romanian church in the making. Cool toned austerity is threaded throughout, the camera behaves and allows the escalating unsettling action to unfold without critique. What astounds is the absence of outright condemnation. This is people behaving and surviving situations both banal and exceptional according to their principles and worldviews. Even fleeting presences in BTH feel like full, rich and history laden people. One might detect a hint of critique in Mungui’s neorealist depiction of the challenges, inadequacies and bureaucratic processes of various state and church institutions, but again, an almost stark fairness reigns. This starkness is translated into the understated (if not underdone) design of the Criterion edition. Here is my capsule review from 2012:

With his follow-up feature to 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, Christian Mungui has cemented a distinctive style that is both moderately paced and urgent.  Mungui has no need to consult varied pacing or even music to affect his drama, in fact those methods would have ill consequence on his sense of drama-at-its-own-pace, and his sense of place.  The urgency arises from the content itself, situational and emotional.  BTH has a curious sense of time, which is matter of factly executed but also subliminally abstract.  The narrative is chronological, however the coexistence of the ramshackle and isolated orthodox monastery that looks and feels old-world (as well as the lifestyles and practices of the sisters there), within that of modern Romania feels like the overlapping of two disparate time periods, as one might feel similarly about the Pennsylvania Dutch in modern Lancaster.  And yet, these two worlds necessarily interact.  That discrepancy is one of the most compelling elements of the story.  Engrained in, and informed by, this dichotomy is the struggle of Alina, a deeply emotionally disturbed young woman who exhibits a possessive fever over her now devout friend (and former lover) Voichita.  Alina has come to visit Voichita from an unpleasant stint in Germany and hopes to abscond with her, but Alina’s true heart is for Christ.  The depictions of Alina’s mania and her brooding attitude against the lifestyle that has swayed her object of desire, are exemplary and authentic.  As is the depiction of the contention between the sisters and priest wanting to help Alina, without forcing their way of life on her.

Since everyone is avoiding Zodiac for fear of repeats, I will go ahead and do it myself. Zodiac is the correct answer. It is THE best true crime film ever made, THE best entry in David Fincher’s filmography, and THE best film of 2007 (sorry, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men).

There are many things which make Zodiac so special. First and foremost, the story lends itself to a full utilization of Fincher’s cinematic style. For the bulk of its runtime it’s a slick, clinical procedural. Intermittently it becomes a deeply disturbing horror film. Ultimately, it frames itself as a study of obsession and ego. Basically, we take the basic template which was explored in Se7en and expand it to almost three masterfully paced hours. The David Fincher of Se7en was not yet ready to make a film like Zodiac, but in the decade and change since the release of the former, the once hyper-stylized, aggressively present director smoothed out his visual edges and grew into the type of mature filmmaker who commands every layer of his craft. From the performances, to the pacing, to the humor, to the outright nightmarish horror, a story as dense and in need of a thorough telling as Zodiac couldn’t have been made by anyone else.

Perhaps the most haunting thing about Zodiac is the fact that, at this moment, the case remains unsolved (maybe not for long, given the active DNA investigation), and it’s been this way for decades. Zodiac’s thematic gut-punch is identical to the legacy of its titular killer: even with the best investigators/filmmakers on the case, the bad guy won.

When the film draws to a close, the fact that the Zodiac killer remains at large is indeed scary, but the effect that his unsolvable killing spree had on the people who tried to crack it is even scarier. Everyone has a pet theory. The movie itself leans pretty heavily on one particular subject. But until a new break occurs one can only be so sure…

Much love to Bernie and Memories of Murder as well.–Dan Scully

In the true-crime film canon, David Fincher’s Zodiac ranks near the peak. With its sinister vibe and obsessed protagonists — very few films dive as deep into the pathology of detective work — it’s a movie so widely praised and studied that it feels redundant to write a general appraisal in its favor.

Thus, instead of stating the obvious, I’d like to bring your attention to a grimy, discomforting, and relentlessly dour serial-killer chiller, based on the murders of Werner Kniesekm, from Austria: Gerald Kargl’s Angst. I’ve written about this title at length prior, but, here, would like to emphasize just how successful director Kargl, Oscar-winning cinematographer Zbigniew Rybczyński, actor Erwin Leder, and composer Klaus Schulze work to conjure an atmosphere of persistent dread and unease. There’s a dark cloud hanging over this film long before the unfurling of its graphic, methodical home-invasion centerpiece, and the mephitic aura is further enkindled by Leder’s all-consuming voiceover — all the more alarming for its passages detailing self-analysis and process. Showcasing an aggressive subjectivity and baroque visual aesthetic, Angst doesn’t look or sound much like any serial killer made before or since, invoking a form of stylized realism that positions the spectator within the claustrophobic confines of its central killer’s headspace; any semblance of normalcy or psychological remove is nowhere to be found. Kargl and Rybczyński try everything in the book, envisioning a clinical, cold world wherein the camera can crane up above the trees (in one instance, to isolate the butcher amid a ritzy garden) or find itself, via proto-Snooricam rigs, literally harnessed to the actor’s body; the acrobatic violence of the visual playbook is as intense as that committed in the action. Banned in several countries and long unreleased in the States, Angst‘s unforgiving energy and bursts of horrendous violence render it a tough sell, but, behind all that morbidity, it also supplies a constant delivery of pure cinema; here’s that rare movie in which the viewer’s feelings of elation and revulsion might even commingle.

Other superb titles in the true-crime genre include Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, Shôhei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Larry Clark’s Bully, Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, and Terrence Malick’s Badlands.-Dan Santelli

Surprised to find I’m the first to mention All the President’s Men, which plays like an action movie with typewriters for guns and words for bullets. Never has a movie about people whispering and typing been so wrought with tension, other than perhaps the favorite among the staff here, Zodiac. I remember seeing this for the first time projected onto a wall at a house party in college – I had absolutely no interest in this seemingly boring, “old” movie, but was almost immediately transfixed by it, constantly shouting at other party goers to “shut the fuck up, Sundance and Hook are typing!” It continues to be one of my favorite movies, growing with each re-watch. And, perhaps most importantly, it inspired this absolutely fantastic cinemashup by Jeff Yorkes.–

My love of Zodiac and Fargo (that one totally counts, right?) aside, I’m not much a true crime fan when it comes to murder, but why not dip back into my favorite genre, the con film, for another go with Catch Me If You Can. It’s extremely reductionist to note that Spielberg makes this a feel-good film about fathers and surrogate fathers. Yes, that is what ties the story of Frank Abagnale together, but there’s so much more at play here. In some ways, it is a (light) psychological thriller, as Abagnale uses the mid-century trust in institutions–schools, banks, airlines, hospitals–against itself in order to grift out a life for himself. It also features on of John William’s most unique scores. —Ryan Silberstein

I’ve definitely answered a different split decision question with “Monster” so I may as well be brand loyal. It’s horrifying, heartbreaking, and human. All the most important H words used to positively describe movies.—Jenna Kuerzi

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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