Watercooler Wednesdays: 42 Days of Darkness & The Staircase
Watercooler Shows, the trending series that everyone talks about the next day at the office, around the water cooler. Watercooler Wednesdays seeks to be a (critical) guide through the VoD maze: from masterpiece series to guilty pleasures, and from blockbusters that keep you on the edge of your couch to hidden gems; if it leads to binging, then it’s exactly what we’re looking for.
This month’s recommendations are, unintentionally, in direct competition: two stories of domestic violence re-told in very different ways. Unintentionally, but not by chance, because it involves two series that fall under the broader umbrella of true crime, a genre whose popularity has exploded in recent years. When not in the realm of superhero productions, many of the titles released lately by streaming platforms fall into this category of true crime. The demand for such content is so high that the same “real facts” become the subject of several series distributed on competing platforms. A special case is HBO’s The Staircase, which is based on both a suspicious death and a highly publicized trial, as well as a documentary shot during the trial. The documentary can be seen on Netflix, where else, which practically re-invented the genre (from “Netflix and chill” it got to “true crime, a glass of wine, bed by nine”). The appetite for such topics also explains a rare occurrence such as 42 días en la oscuridad, the first original Netflix production shot in Chile. Why rare? Because it goes against the trend and denies the viewer the usual pleasures associated with the genre, from shocking details and macabre reconstructions to the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator being caught (or at least knowing with relative certainty who they are).
42 días en la oscuridad / 42 Days of Darkness (Gaspar Antillo, Claudia Huaiquimilla, 2022)
One of the good things about Netflix in its quest for global dominance is that it’s also about content expansion. No other platform invests so much in such diverse content (linguistically speaking), and no other platform fails so much with these international productions (artistically speaking). From time to time, however, the planets align, as is the case with this first foray into Chilean cinema.
Like most true crime productions – except for the rare ones where the series itself launches the investigation – it also begins with the discovery of a victim: Veronica Montes, who is found lifeless, and with no visible signs of violence, in a dark room in the attic of her own house. By then Veronica had been missing (allegedly abducted) for 42 days. The title points to this absence and a possibility that raises the horror to unbearable heights: it is possible that for some of these 42 days, Veronica was alive.
Veronica is not the real name of the victim, but the story is very much true and it happened in 2010, in an isolated and affluent community, in a region of Chile known as “the Switzerland of South America”. As in the case of The Staircase, the missing white woman syndrome is definitely involved here: a missing person or a victim of a violent crime will have greater media exposure if they fall into this category. It is this exposure that attracts Víctor Pizarro, a lawyer who was once a big shot but came to represent petty criminals after some suspicious maneuvers, which are never elucidated. An avid smoker, heavily indebted, divorced and with a teenage son he neglects, Pizarro is the cliché lawman to whom no one gives a chance. Driven equally by the obsession with solving this case and the hope that in this way he will regain his status and old job, Pizarro convinces half of the victim’s family (her mother and sisters) that the police are incompetent and that the best option is to hire him and for him to join the investigation. This parallel investigation will cause a rift with the other half of the family – the husband and two minor daughters – as the belief that the husband is guilty sets in.
Pizarro and his improbable team of collaborators are most likely the work of Netflix (perhaps indirectly, on account of the needs of the genre) and did not exist as such in reality. But their presence helps to lay out some real landmarks in the deplorable investigation by the police and to outline theories related to the possible involvement of the husband. This dimension of crime thriller is well explored, cliché-wise, but is equally subversive, as the real case. The clues Pizarro is pursuing lead to nowhere, but they are not completely defused either, and the investigation progresses by a deus ex machina: years after the murder, the lawyer is stopped on the street by an older client who just gives him the paid assassin. A stupid resolution … but that’s the way it really happened.
Beyond the ambiguities of the real case, which the series faithfully reflects, we’re also dealing with an aesthetic choice by its creators. True crime offers the illusion of unequivocal guilt (or innocence), clear motives and the belief that the truth always comes out supported by evidence and the investigators’ intuition. 42 Days of Darkness shows how the evidence is circumstantial, the witnesses refuse to cooperate, the criminal confessions are replaced by other confessions, and the judicial system is rather focused on the result than on the discovery of the whole truth. Indicated by the killer as the perpetrator, the husband ends up in custody for more than 2 years during the trial, only to be released for lack of evidence.
More importantly, however, this dimension of crime thriller serves as a pretext and narrative anchor for a lyrical exploration of the effects such an incident has on secondary victims, the family. If the truth in true crimes often remains hidden, the disaster left behind, the trauma and possibly the healing, are truths that can be represented. The lawyer slash detective is the dramaturgical protagonist, he sets things in motion and organizes them in a coherent (even if illusory) judicial narrative that can be rationally assimilated (true crime); Cecilia and Kari, the victim’s sister and daughter, are the reflective protagonists, and Veronica (ingeniously portrayed through flashbacks and footage from the family archive) is also a protagonist, passive and with impenetrable secrets, but whose memory must be kept alive.
42 Days of Darkness practically reinvents the genre and shifts the focus from cause to effect, from aggression to victim/survivors, from pragmatic legal prose to melancholy poetry of open wounds. The initial shock, the hope (when it is still considered a kidnapping case), the teenage girl’s remorse and aunt’s suspicions, the horror of the discovery, the destructive intrusion of the media, the revolt against the initial verdict (suicide), the rift in the family and the impossibility of reconciling two hypostases that cancel each other out (loving father/murderous husband) … the seismic waves generated by such an earthquake reverberate, mutilate and shape the most at the epicenter. This reinvention is, of course, due to the lead actresses’ performance, but also the outstanding editing, which flawlessly combines the spatio-temporal textures into a single composite reality: present, memories, flashbacks, archive footage. These characters, alive or gone, move in the same affective-geographical space, searching for answers, searching for themselves, searching for others. Sadness and hope grow from and melt into this rainy paradise in southern Chile. 42 Days of Darkness is a true crime elegy.
42 Days of Darkness is available on Netflix.
The Staircase (Antonio Campos, 2022)
Contrary to the visual delicacy with which 42 Days of Darkness envelops its victim, The Staircase begins with a brutal immersion in the crime scene, meticulously reconstructed based upon data from the archives: Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) lies in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in her home. Her husband, Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), who called the ambulance, says she was still alive when he found her, and probably slipped on the stairs after drinking some wine. Contrary to the Chilean police’s innocent but empathetic wavering, the US authorities’ reaction is cold and suspicious from the start.
The suspicion is mutual: Michael Peterson, a novelist and former mayoral candidate, has always criticized them in his column in the local newspaper for dealing rather with petty stuff than with violent crimes affecting the community – now is the time for revenge. In a nutshell, the trial was based on two things: an impressive amount of blood and the discovery of gay pornography on Peterson’s computer. The two narratives were instantly outlined: Kathleen had discovered her husband’s secret, threatened to break up, they started fighting, and Michael killed her in a fit of rage vs. their relationship was loving and inclusive, Michael was bisexual and Kathleen had no problem with that.
True crime, strictly speaking, is a work of non-fiction – with a long history that probably originates in the news stories section, crosses Truman Capote’s oeuvre, and thrives in the age of podcasts and streaming. But here, non-fiction is more about the format and the style of depiction (talking heads, voice-over, re-enactment, docudrama) and less about the certainty of truth or objectivity. The station point of the camera, using certain pieces of information and arranging them in a particular order can build different versions of the same facts: guilty or innocent. On the other side, fiction cinema has patented different ways of dramatizing real events and people, and that “based on true events” or changing the names of the characters are simply legal technicalities meant to avoid any possible lawsuits. Insofar as the public can make a connection with the real situation, we are in the true crime zone. The Staircase fully assumes its affiliation to true crime, the names of the characters are the names of the real people involved, feeding not only on the notoriety of the case (the story practically begins in 2001) but also on the notoriety of the French documentary The Staircase (originally released in 2004 as an 8-episode docuseries, with new episodes added in 2013 and 2018, as new information emerges, which will hijack the original verdict).
Antonio Campos’ drama series reminds of a Shakespearean tragedy, but the elements it borrows are tailored to the circumstances of a family. There is a scene in the first episode that perfectly illustrates this approach. Gathered together for dinner to celebrate the youngest girl’s admission to college, parents and children pass between themselves a metal wine cup, toasting to each family member. On this occasion, we learn that the Petersons are in fact the Petersons (Michael and his two sons from the first marriage, one a failure, the other more successful), the two Ratliff sisters (adopted by Michael, after their mother died … also by falling down the stairs) and Caitlin Atwood, Kathleen’s biological daughter from another marriage.
These distinctions are important because, on their basis, irreparable fractures will be drawn later. Michael’s biological children will support his innocence and believe him innocent of the crime, the two adopted girls will support him as well, but always with a shadow of doubt, and Kathleen’s daughter will ally with her biological family, isolating herself. As things are going south, this mini-court will receive new guests: Michael’s brother, his ex-wife, a retired neighbor eager to help, the lawyer, and finally Jean-Xavier – the French documentary filmmaker interested in the wheels of the US justice system.
As for Kathleen, she may have taken her husband’s name, but it soon becomes clear that she is the one running and financially supporting this mini-monarchy, in which the emperor is broke. “Thank you for always being there for me,” says the eldest son rising the cup in his father’s honor, “May you succeed in politics the way you succeeded in writing.”; there is something inaccurate about the reality that this toast presumes, a falsehood that the attentive viewer will later decipher, as more details come to light (excellent direction by Campos and performance by Colin Firth, in the subtle revelation of a character who is essentially a failure but manages to project this image of success and authority). The protagonist is not a talentless man (we never find out anything about his novels), he is charismatic and very good at handling social situations, and he doesn’t seem very upset with being a kept man, and the relationship with Kathleen is far from being emasculating.
Under this Shakespearean surface, however, the main character’s evolution works according to other dramaturgical rules, which rather belong to ancient tragedy. The essence of Greek tragedy (catharsis) is not so far, in some cases, from the essence of true crime: the unsettling, alluring thing about these famous trials is the decline, the disparity between the high point (the definition of success varies, of course) and the total disaster that follows. As in any Greek tragedy, the decline is the result of arrogance and excess: Peterson dared too much when in fact he already had almost everything (and had achieved all this without any considerable effort). Innocent or not, Peterson would not have been convicted if the police had not discovered his affairs, which fueled the theory of adultery as a trigger for the conflict. Obviously, the hubris here is not the sexual orientation but the arrogance of believing that you are intangible: your value to the community and family is so great that you are allowed anything.
For its directorial vision, and for its acting, The Staircase is worth all the attention it’s getting. Unfortunately, like its main character, the series wants to be several things at once, and what I’ve praised above risks drowning in a number of excesses (the verdict is pending, HBO has so far released only 5 episodes out of 8). From excess melodrama to the unnecessary overcrowding of talent (famous actors cast in minor roles), culminating in too much creative freedom that raises serious ethical issues, The Staircase risks collapsing under its own weight.
The Staircase is available on HBO Max.