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HBO’s The Staircase shows the limits of the True-Crime Industrial Complex

on the paper, stairs This is completely unnecessary. The death of North Carolina businesswoman Kathleen Peterson in 2001 and the subsequent trial of her husband Michael were covered in fascinating detail in a Peabody Award-winning documentary series, published by stairs His name and tons of parody documentaries (thanks to Channel ID). So what’s the point of repackaging these same events and reselling them?

The typical line for true crime projects trying to evade charges of exploitation is to “salute the victim,” or at least examine their psyche. 2016 Campos movie Christina It did so by dramatizing the twisted emotions and depressing ambitions that led to news anchor Christine Chubbuck’s death in 1974. stairs Available for review: Of course, you have Tony Colette as Catherine, building on her fearless reputation with tabletop scenes that can’t help but do her famous “I’m Your Mother!” monologue from heir† But in terms of illustrating Peterson’s reasons, Campos’ version stairs It’s no closer than the original by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

fabricated ladder It’s more about the meta-narrative of the case than the case itself (or, by extension, the people involved). Campos’ take on the story provides an excellent, high-profile cast that, in addition to Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, also features Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg , Rosemary DeWitt, Sophie Turner and Parker Posey. But at the start of these eight episodes, the cast… stairs The atmosphere of a prestigious entertainment venue. Combined with the heavy use of battered and bloodied mannequins, and disturbing graphic entertainment, seeing Colette die time and time again in utter terror, it sets an eerie tone that overwhelms any sense of posthumous dignity. hymn.

Photo: HBOMax

The Petersons sat at the table, Katherine shot from behind, and Michael smiled at the children among them.

Photo: HBOMax

But for those viewers who aren’t shut down by the camera, passively watch Colette’s dying struggle.stairs Requests to support their own existence.This is especially true of the theatrical version of the French film crew that produced the original ladder Into the story: While there’s still something uncomfortably close to fans, revelations about the production stairs Project the past with new eyes.

De Lestrade’s version stairs Sometimes considered the pinnacle of true crime documentary making, it is a serious exploration of the big ideas of justice, shot in a just-movie style and designed to present the facts of the case in a balanced way. From this perspective, Campos’ approach is clearly the opposite: speculative, shocking, and entertaining. But behind the scenes of the Drestrade film, there is a serious violation of documentary ethics. ladder This upsets the moral balance between the two works. Campos pulls a deft meta-trick by weaving them into his story, favoring Michael Peterson’s story when shooting early episodes, and then showing why the makers of the documentary might be biased.

since the documentary stairs Dealing with prejudice and the impossibility of objective truth, this approach is very appropriate and very clever. Not all documentary references, however, are so abstract: Campos faithfully reproduces the footage from the documentary, the haunting recording of a tape recorder playing a distress call. In both versions, it was part of a series of tests by Peterson’s defense to prove it was impossible for him to hear his wife’s dying screams from his position in the family pool. But in de Lestrade’s film, it’s more visceral, and therefore more disturbing: a reminder of Catherine’s pain in this very clinical documentary. Campos’ performance is full of human texture and eerie shock value, making his faithfulness to recreate the moment more like a flickering Easter egg than anything else.

Colin Firth arguing with Michael Stuhlbarg in The Staircase stills

Photo: HBOMax

The attention to detail extends to the set design: when the camera fixes its gaze on a stack of VHS tapes on Peterson’s desk (Amadeus, Oklahoma! , the third person, yes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, For those interested), there is an implicit commitment, which is a detail taken directly from life. stairs It does a good job of establishing the show’s mediocre, affluent suburban setting in the late ’90s and early 2000s, though it’s less nuanced in determining how Peterson’s wealth and status affected his murders.According to the first half stairsNorth Carolina only found out that Peterson was married to a woman but flirted with a man and decided to hang him for it.

Posey plays prosecutor Freda Black, who acts in the style of Ryan Murphy’s true crime drama, playing her version of Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, with a southern accent and a sleazy, homophobic obsession with Michael’s bisexuality. Now, this may actually be true. But the acting is overdone and clashes with the more popular cast members like Margaret (Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young), the adopted daughters of the Peterson family.Depending on who you talk to, maybe the prosecutor in this case commodity The death of cartoon villain Katherine Peterson has been mysterious from the start, and the mystery will only deepen as details are revealed in each subsequent episode.

Campos makes many interesting decisions stairs, from the larger metaframe to the decision to cut the dramatic courtroom moment out of the story entirely. Even the most unpleasant moments in the series can be seen as a bold direction, refusing to step away from the harrowing reality of death. In fact, there may be no real “truth” about what happened the night Kathryn Peterson died, just a bunch of circumstantial evidence and curious onlookers approaching the case with their own agenda.The challenge of this series is to stay true to the emotional truth of the story ladder Legend, don’t get lost in the horrific details.

first three episodes stairs It premieres May 5 on HBO Max. New episodes appear every Thursday.

Content

HBO’s The Staircase shows the limits of the True-Crime Industrial Complex

On paper, The Staircase is wholly unnecessary. The 2001 death of North Carolina business executive Kathleen Peterson and subsequent trial of her husband Michael has been covered in obsessive detail, both in the Peabody Award-winning docuseries that gives The Staircase its name and a flurry of copycat documentaries (shoutout to the ID channel). So what’s the point of wrapping those same events in a new package and selling them — again?
The typical line for true-crime projects trying to sidestep accusations of exploitation is that it’s about “honoring the victims,” or at least exploring their psychology. Campos’ 2016 film Christine accomplished this admirably, dramatizing the troubled emotions and thwarted ambitions that led to Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck’s on-air death in 1974. The same can’t really be said for the five episodes of The Staircase made available for review: Sure, you’ve got Toni Collette as Kathleen, building on her fearless reputation with dinner-table scenes that can’t help but evoke her famous “I am your mother!” monologue from Hereditary. But in terms of illuminating what made either Peterson tick, Campos’ version of The Staircase is no more forthcoming than Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original.
The fictionalized Staircase is more about the meta-narrative surrounding the case than the case itself (or, by extension, the people involved). Campos’ version of the story has secured a fantastic, high-profile cast that also features Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, as well as Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sophie Turner, and Parker Posey in supporting roles. But early on in this eight-episode series, the casting gives The Staircase the air of a prestige reenactment. Combined with the extensive use of a bloodied, battered dummy, as well as disturbing, graphic re-creations that see Collette dying in extreme distress again and again, it sets a ghoulish tone that preempts any paeans to post-mortem dignity.

Photo: HBO Max

Photo: HBO Max
But for those viewers who aren’t turned off by the camera passively observing Collette’s gurgling death rattles, The Staircase does shore up the case for its own existence as it goes along. This is particularly true when dramatized versions of the French film crew that made the original Staircase enter the narrative: Although there are still moments of something that skews uncomfortably close to fandom, revelations about the making of The Staircase cast everything that came before in a new light.
De Lestrade’s version of The Staircase is sometimes cited as the pinnacle of true-crime documentary filmmaking, a serious-minded exploration of big ideas about justice filmed in a detached cinéma vérité style that purports to simply present the facts of the case in a balanced way. By that metric, Campos’ approach feels distinctly the opposite: speculative, shocking, and built to entertain. But there were serious breaches of documentary ethics behind the scenes of de Lestrade’s Staircase that alter the moral balance between the two works. Campos pulls off a skillful meta-trick weaving these into his narrative, filming the first few episodes with a bias toward Michael Peterson’s side of the story, then showing why the makers of the documentary might themselves have been biased.
Given that the documentary version of The Staircase grapples with questions of prejudice and the impossibility of objective truth, this approach is both wholly appropriate and rather clever. Not all the documentary references are so abstract, however: Campos faithfully re-creates memorable imagery from the documentary, namely a haunting shot of a tape recorder playing audio of a voice crying for help. In both versions, it’s part of a sequence depicting tests done by Peterson’s defense to prove that there was no way he could have heard his wife’s dying screams from his position next to the family’s pool. But in de Lestrade’s film, it’s more visceral, and therefore more haunting — a reminder of Kathleen’s suffering in what’s otherwise a very clinical documentary. Campos’ rendition is full of both humanizing texture and macabre shock value, which makes the faithfulness with which he recreates this moment feel more like a winking Easter egg than anything.

Photo: HBO Max
The attention to detail extends to the set design: When the camera turns its gaze to a pile of VHS tapes on Peterson’s desk (Amadeus, Oklahoma!, The Third Man, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for those interested), there’s an implicit promise that this is a detail taken straight from life. The Staircase does do a good job of establishing the series’ banal, moneyed late-’90s/early-’00s suburban milieu, although it’s less meticulous when it comes to establishing how Peterson’s wealth and status factored in to his prosecution for murder. According to the first half of The Staircase, the state of North Carolina simply learned that Peterson was married to a woman but had dalliances with men on the side, and decided to hang him for it.
For her part, Posey — who plays prosecutor Freda Black — is acting in the style of a Ryan Murphy true-crime drama, doing her version of Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark with a Southern accent and a prurient, homophobic fixation on Michael Peterson’s bisexuality. Now, this may be factually correct. But the performance is exaggerated in a way that doesn’t jive with the realistic portrayals of more sympathetic players like the Petersons’ adopted daughters, Margaret (Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young). Depending on who you talk to, however, maybe the prosecutors in this case were cartoon villains. Kathleen Peterson’s death was mysterious from the jump, and the enigma only deepens as details are parceled out in each subsequent episode.
Campos makes a lot of interesting decisions in The Staircase, from its larger meta-framework to the decision to omit a dramatic courtroom moment from the narrative entirely. Even the series’ less tasteful moments can be seen as bold direction, a refusal to look away from the distressing reality of death. There may indeed be no real “truth” about what happened the night Kathleen Peterson died, only a mountain of circumstantial evidence and curious onlookers bringing their own agendas to the case. The challenge for this series is to remain faithful to the emotional truth of the Staircase saga, and not get lost in the gruesome details.
The first three episodes of The Staircase debut on May 5 on HBO Max. New episodes are released every Thursday.

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