Inside the once-controversial trend that took over true crime TV
When “The Thin Blue Line” was released in 1988, members of the motion picture academy’s documentary committee were so put off by the film’s distinctive style — particularly director Errol Morris’ then-remarkable use of subjective reenactments, inspired by “Rashomon” — that they walked out of an official screening.
And though the landmark film, which investigates the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, ultimately led to the exoneration of a wrongfully convicted man on death row, it was controversial enough that it failed to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Once anathema, the brand of highly stylized re-creation Morris pioneered is now ubiquitous, particularly on the small screen. As long-form true crime docuseries have surged in popularity over the last half-decade, so has the use of impressionistic re-creations providing a fragmented look at the past rather than a literal retelling of events.
The device is central to “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” the 2015 HBO series that helped trigger a true-crime TV gold rush — a flurry of documentaries, including “The Keepers,” “McMillions,” “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” that use cinematic flashbacks to piece together complicated events.
Docuseries like “The Last Dance” and “Tiger King” are a hit with viewers and critics, but the Primetime Emmys haven’t caught up to the zeitgeist.
Unlike the hokey TV reenactments of yesteryear — with their wooden acting, bargain-basement production values and the disclaimer “REENACTMENT” often written across the bottom of the screen — these dramatizations feature lush cinematography, artful lighting, period-accurate costumes and meticulous production design. There is typically little or no audible dialogue. Faces are often obscured or out of the frame entirely, and, like the Burger King milkshake in “The Thin Blue Line,” crucial objects appear in close-up: a piano decorated with Christmas lights, a McDonald’s game piece, a floppy wide-brimmed hat.
“I like the idea that reenactments don’t tell you what happened, they take you deeper and deeper into the mystery,” said Morris, who is featured in the recent FX docuseries “A Wilderness of Error,” now streaming on Hulu. “They give you a way of thinking about the mystery, not of resolving the mystery.”
Morris prefers what he calls an “ironic use” of reenactment to consider divergent perspectives of a particular event and question the accepted narrative. But, he continues, “often, they are used in a much different way — to illustrate something the filmmaker believes is true. It’s illustration rather than investigation.” (He doesn’t like the term “re-creation” either, because it sounds too biblical.)
In “A Wilderness of Error,” director Marc Smerling reexamines the notorious case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret who was convicted of killing his wife and two young daughters in 1970 — a crime he blamed on a gang of acid-crazed hippies. The brutal triple murder has captivated numerous storytellers over the years, including authors Janet Malcolm, Joe McGinniss and even Morris himself, who wrote the book on which the series is based.
Smerling calls Morris “the grandaddy of really high-end re-creations” and recalls going to see a movie in college — “either Halloween’ or ‘Friday the 13th,’” he says — that was sold out. So he went next door to see “The Thin Blue Line” instead. (The film is available to stream via the Criterion Channel.)
“I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
A producer and cinematographer on “The Jinx,” Smerling worked closely with director Andrew Jarecki on the sumptuous re-creations used throughout that series — including a slow-motion shot of Durst’s mother, dressed in a stark white nightgown, plummeting to her death from the roof of the family’s mansion.
Several scenes in “The Jinx” are “right out of the Errol playbook,” says Smerling, citing a scene, borrowed from “The Thin Blue Line,” in which several women are seen through the window of a police precinct as they report the disappearance of Durst’s first wife.
If “The Thin Blue Line” marked a turning point for feature documentaries, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” was a watershed moment for nonfiction TV. While some critics felt the reenactments glamorized Durst’s alleged crimes, many viewers found them utterly engrossing.
“People had done re-creation [on TV] but not quite like that before,” Smerling says. “We really felt like we were doing something extraordinary. We put our backs into it. We spent some money to up the visual storytelling language that was consistent throughout the series, and unique.”
“A Wilderness of Error” includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with family members and investigators, but Smerling also makes liberal use of reenactments to depict various accounts of the crime and follow its long aftermath. (He estimates that about 30% to 40% of the series’ five episodes is re-creation.) We repeatedly see a blurry image of a woman in white ankle boots and a wide-brimmed floppy hat — one of the drugged-out hippies MacDonald says killed his family.
“It felt like really smart people had looked at this crime post-conviction and they’d come down on both sides,” Smerling says. “I thought if we could slow down and look at it over multiple episodes and put the viewer behind the camera, then maybe we could put all this conflict aside.”
The images are seductive, but that’s not the point, Smerling says. “It’s easy to be lulled into the trance of the story. But the stakes are high in something like ‘The Jinx’ or ‘A Wilderness of Error.’ You have to be really clear in your storytelling that what you’re watching is an interpretation of reality — not reality. The use of re-creations is very powerful. It has to be wielded in a way that has respect for the viewer and allows them to make decisions on their own.”
A revival of “Unsolved Mysteries” lands on Netflix at a time when true crime is all over TV
As TV documentaries have grown more ambitious, audiences have become more sophisticated. Like sitcoms with laugh tracks, documentaries with literal re-creations now seem painfully hokey. Case in point: The recent reboot of “Unsolved Mysteries,” which returns to Netflix this month, replaces the creepy but corny reenactments of the original with something more contemporary.
“I am not filming exactly what’s being said,” said Marcus A. Clarke, who directed several episodes of the series. “I’m not giving you the knock on the door — I am giving you the feet walking up to the door, and you see the crack under the door and a little dust falls down. It forces the viewers to think about what’s actually happening and how the images they’re seeing relate to the story, versus spoon-feeding them the same thing they’re hearing. We don’t do ‘see-say.’”
When she was making the documentary series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which follows the late author Michelle McNamara and her hunt for the Golden State Killer, director Liz Garbus and her team wanted a way “to convey the suburban ideal that many of these homes represented — and evoke the twisted nature by which this predator disrupted those seemingly safe, wholesome spaces.”
So in scenes where survivors recalled his attacks in the ’70s and ’80s, Garbus used subjective snapshots from the victims’ perspectives: a flashlight beam moving across a family photo, a refrigerator door left ajar. “I think traumatic experiences, it’s often those details that stick with you, that you focus on, to divert you from the horror at hand. We tried to evoke that,” she said. “We never wanted it to feel as though it was the [killer’s] POV on a victim, or in any way fetishizing his POV.”
As radical as Morris’ re-creations seemed in 1988, they actually represented something of a throwback. “It wasn’t until 1960 that you could walk into a room with a camera and capture things that were happening,” says Robert Greene, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Most early nonfiction films — like Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” — were, by necessity, reenactments.
Greene is a skeptic when it comes to reenactments, which he feels all too often glamorize grisly events (he is decidedly not a fan of “The Jinx.”) In his own work, including “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17,” he uses re-creations “to comment on the limits of filmmaking,” Greene says, and he prefers documentaries that use the device self-consciously — such as “The Act of Killing” or “Casting JonBenet.”
“The best true-crime films,” he says, “want you to read into the images. The worst make escapist sensationalized things that are made to put your hand over your mouth in shock.”
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