“Them That Follow”–Faith, Interrupted

Them That Follow  (2019) is an odd  American indie thriller about an Appalachian, Pentecostal, Charismatic snake-handling Christian cult.  A close-knit community with extremely strong beliefs, it exists on the far-fringe of mainstream society. This is the backdrop for a love story between the Pentecostal pastor’s daughter and a boy in the community who no longer is fervent in his faith.

Mara Childs (newcomer Alice Englert) is a dutiful  daughter, raised to believe that her faith unites the community in a holy bond protecting them from others outside their religion.  Her father, the pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins of “Justified”) is relieved  that his daughter, in her late teens, has agreed–albeit reluctantly– to marry Garrett, one of the parishioners he’s most fond of.  However, Mara really loves  Augie Slaughter (newcomer Thomas Mann) who has distanced himself from the church, much to his mother’s dismay  (Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter).

By handling poisonous snakes,  worshippers demonstrate their faith in putting their lives in God’s hands.  If you avoid being bitten or survive the venom  all of your sins may be forgiven.. After a minor dies during a snake- handling church meeting, police warn Lemuel he is under investigation for reckless endangerment of a minor, and perhaps for murder. 

For the first half of the film, Mara does not question her father or her own faith, until she becomes engaged to Garrett, who doesn’t understand her disinterest in him. By the second half  Mara finds herself in an existential crisis, in which she must choose between her faith  and her love for Augie.  

Them That Follow  moves slowly with some irrelevant scenes during the first half of the drama,  but once the story moves to family dynamics and the sacrifices individuals have to make in order to save their souls, it becomes dramatic and tense.   A faith that had once been human and natural, now morphs into something twisted and grotesque like the snakes in the church’s vestibule.  We see the conflict between the security offered by the religious community and the courage needed to move beyond that community. 

The ending is unexpected.  While flawed, Them That Follow held this viewer’s attention until the end.  Any opportunity to watch Olivia Colman is worth taking and the other members of the cast provide nuanced performances.  This is not for everyone.  But it is  a glimpse into a controversial, quirky slice of Americana which is disturbing.

Available on Netflix DVD.

Note:  Them That Follow  was filmed in Youngstown and Salem, Ohio as a substitute for the more southern Appalachia region. In 2013 there were roughly 125 snake-handling churches in central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio, as well in Edmonton and British Columbia.  Pentecostal Holiness churches base their  snake handling services  on a very literal interpretation of a biblical passage from the gospel of Mark 16:17-18:  “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“The Hater”–Social Media Run Amok

The Hater, a Polish thriller, captivates with its young nerd culture gone awry on social media. The movie is intelligent,  never simplifying the internecine competition between the elite college professional and those who yearn for that life.  The Hater reveals a  cold, ruthless world of postmodern haves and have-nots.  The online emotional vengeance and despair are palpable as the young computer hacker,Tomasz, wreaks havoc on those he most wants to replace.  Channeling his sociopathic, obsessive behavior into a place designed to enhance it: Facebook. 

Tomasz’s zeal stems partly from humiliation at being found to be plagiarizing in law school and also partly from his benefactor’s family’s condescension towards him. Tomasz masterminds a smear campaign against those who have considered him socially inferior, using racism, xenophobia, and homophobia as not just tools of division but ways to get ahead at the expense of others. 

Weaponizing social media as a troll farm to recruit others with a similar sense of grievance against the world, Tomasz takes on institutional complacency and smugness.  He wonders if  their situation will always remain the same. In a disturbing but  original way,  The Hater pounds at the technological anxiety that increasingly seems to infuse societies worldwide.  A very nihilistic perspective on the internet’s tentacles into our lives.  Well done!

Note:  The Tribeca Film Festival winner for Best International Narrative Feature Award 2020. Now available on Netflix streaming.

“The Goldfinch”–Art and Loss

Goldfinch (2020), based upon Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, tells the story of  a young boy, Theo ( the astonishing Oakes Fegley), who is walking through galleries with his beloved mother at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They gaze at a Dutch Master painting of a chained bird, the Goldfinch,  when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes the rubble, clutching the 17th-century masterpiece and a dying man’s insistence that he take his ring.  The little boy’s life will change dramatically over the course of the film.

With his mother dead and his father a deadbeat, Theo is thrown into two worlds: The first in an  Upper East Side Barbour family led by a matriarch (Nicole Kidman), followed by the Las Vegas gambling underworld of his dad and Theo’s teenage friend Boris.  Both worlds have an irrevocable impact on Theo’s life. Random and unforeseen events, even tragedies, shape Theo into someone he  wouldn’t otherwise be.  

As one would expect from a novel with several plots to propel the characters’ arcs into surprising dramatic turning points,   Goldfinch, for the most part,  manages to hold the viewer’s interest.   Some scenes in the first half are a bit slow, but the second half of the film turns into a crime thriller.

The adult Theo (Ansel Elgort from “Baby Driver”), who is the narrator, does not rise to the heartbreaking performance of the young Oakes Fegley.   And Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, –Theo’s refuge and loving father figure– are as good as they always are, subtle and understated.   

This is a movie with deeply flawed characters.  Viewers who can appreciate the destructive elements  of lies, secrets, and betrayal will understand that this is a story about the loss and grief of a young child, and the young adult’s journey towards healing, with the promise of love and forgiveness.  This film kept me watching until the end.

Note: I believe the  critics judged this movie a little too harshly.  I did not read the book so I was not influenced by a comparison with Tartt’s novel.  However, the two media are radically different and I have never felt that the psychological interior lives portrayed in a novel can be presented visually on the screen in the same way that the abstraction of the narrative is created in the mind of the reader. 

“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

“The Good Liar”–A Story Within a Story

The Good Liar, a 2019 crime thriller,   based on the titular novel by Nicholas Searle, is a cat-and-mouse plot featuring a septuagenarian wealthy widow, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and an octogenarian con artist  Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen). They meet on a first date scheduled through a dating app for seniors.

Roy obviously does not have good intentions and his motives are soon recognized as dishonorable by Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey), who grows increasingly suspicious and resentful.  Betty, on the other hand, seems smitten.  Will she see that Roy is a clever liar, not a kind gentleman who will assuage her loneliness?

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for The Good Liar.  Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.


Even if you guess the lying,  deception, and backstory, it is wonderful to  watch two much-loved veteran actors fine-tuning every nuance of their characters’ personalities, and every moment of their time on screen. While there are  occasional lapses into melodrama, a few subplot holes, and an ending that is weak while the true ending would have been chilling,  seeing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play unexpected characters against type is more than  entertaining.  They also have to engage in quite physically demanding action sequences that reward the viewer in and of itself, a tribute to their professionalism and stamina at the height of their game.  Ian McKellen is at times convincingly charming, menacing throughout, and vulnerable. Helen Mirren, the sweet widow and grandmother, has a multi-layered persona and pointed, scathing dialogue that asks the viewer:  Who is lying now?

This is a sleeper to add to your watch list!

Note:  Available on DVD (Netflix) and HBO streaming.

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“High Seas”–“Death on the Nile” meets “Murder on the Orient Express”

In this Spanish melodrama (Spanish:  Alta Mar) , two sisters discover some very disturbing family secrets aboard a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after World War II.  Agatha Christie’s style of mystery plotting, overlaid with the  Spanish love of melodrama and telenovela, makes High Seas an unusual series.

Following the death of their father, sisters Eva and Carolina Villanueva travel on the luxury ocean liner, Bárbara de Braganza.  The sisters, over the course of three seasons,  become committed to  investigating mysterious deaths that occur on the cruise ship.  Each character–the sisters, their love interests, and a number of other passengers– provide intrigue as they reveal their backstories, increasing suspicions about once benign-looking individuals.  Having so many complex characters helps with pacing, cutting in expertly from one subplot to the next.   In Season One the mysterious murder,  solved fairly quickly, moves the story to lies, betrayal, and family scandal. This is the best of the three seasons.  Season Two adds an ephemeral ghost story and the red herrings sometimes are dropped suddenly, leaving obvious plot holes.  Season Three, about a virus onboard the cruise ship, has a terrific premise but too many characters’ scenes are either incomplete in moving the drama forward or the pace is ground to almost a halt.

Easy to watch, mostly entertaining without insulting your intelligence or emotions, High Seas is a good-looking, light-hearted, sometimes farcical mystery with performances that signal that the actors are not taking the drama too seriously, which is a good thing.  The influence of Art Deco in the set designs and the period clothing are stunning and reliably historical. While this is not A-class drama, it is definitely an enjoyable Netflix series.  My only major criticism is that the narrative did not really support so many episodes per season.  Four to five episodes, more tightly scripted, would have improved this whodunit.

Note:  Only watch High Seas with subtitles, even though some are very fast and others are in white font on an almost white background.  As with most foreign films, the dubbed version is usually annoying and the acting is awful.

“Humans”–“Dark Mirror” Meets “Ex Machina”

The Amazon Prime sci-fi series, Humans (three seasons), takes place in the not- too-distant future where the affluent purchase “synths”, artificially intelligent human-looking robots that can perform a multitude of tasks from housecleaning, surveillance, and sex-toy services.  A suburban  family buys Anita (the exquisitely beautiful Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians”) to help with the burdens of a professional couple. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), is a manager in a factory  who is replaced by synths.   His wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson of Pirate Radio and Doc Martin), a human rights attorney and activist, responds viscerally  to living with Anita.  The three children become very attached, as Anita learns to know them better than their parents.

A computer scientist, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), helped develop the earlier synth models and has become emotionally attached to an obsolete prototype named Odi. As George’s memory fails, Odi has become the archive of the younger George’s past, especially regarding his beloved, now deceased wife. George finds his humanity and his dignity in the circuitry of Odi.

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence.  A subtext exists also.  How do humans react to what or who is different?  Is discrimination based on appearance inevitable?  Are they empathetic?  Merely suspicious?  Violent? A range of  responses are given.  And, how does the employer treat those who serve?  Does the employer lack empathy for  employees as if they are  less human?  How do employees feel about their treatment by the boss?  And most importantly, what does “human” even mean? 

Season 3 mines deeper into the sociopolitical dimensions of technology without diluting the potency of well-drawn characters.  Great writing and acting avoid preaching on human morality. Instead, Humans  is at times warm and funny, frightening and disturbing, in developing  a powerful set of  characters who ask the viewer what it means to claim you are human.

Needless to say, this series is binge-worthy even for those who are not sci-fi fans.

Availability:  Amazon Prime (UK Version)

“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” (Season Two)–Stranger Things Happen

In this  relatively seamless sequel to “The Alienist”, based on Caleb Carr’s second psychological thriller, season two is a retelling of Carr’s Angel of Darkness.  But this is much more than a sequel.  (For my review of season one, see my April 29, 2018 review:  “The Alienist”–Something Wicked This Way Comes).

The year is 1897, a scant three years before the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gilded Age.  In New York City, a serial killer is kidnapping and murdering babies. Angel of Darkness opens with a grisly scene of Martha Napp, perhaps wrongfully accused of murdering her child, sitting in the electric chair preparing to be the first woman to be executed by that means as well as the first person in the US to be found guilty without finding a murdered body as evidence.

In season two there is a new case to solve. And Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the “alienist” (the Victorian term for the new profession of psychiatrist), John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans)  now a New York Times journalist and one of high society’s most eligible bachelors, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning),  the first woman detective with her own agency in New York.  They are determined to find the baby-murderer.

Martha Napp’s baby disappeared from a lying-in hospital, born to an unwed mother. The second baby, taken the same day as the first mother’s execution, was kidnapped from the  Fifth Avenue mansion of the Spanish ambassador.

In this season Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (the wonderfully quirky Ted Levine from “The Closer”) and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. This is a major shift from the first season when Dr. Laszlo Kreizler was the compelling but abrasive smartest guy in the room.  Now he plays a secondary, not really titular role, as the alienist who lacks any social skills  and forgets other people in the room have feelings.  It’s Sara Howard who is the mastermind.

Sara Howard [Dakota Fanning} and John Schuyler Moore [Luke Evans]

The “lying-in hospital” is the venue of interest, perhaps the source of the crimes involving newborns.  Libby Hatch (newcomer Rosy McEwen), is a young nurse and would-be whistleblower who befriends Sara and supplies much-needed information. 

Red herrings proliferate throughout the eight episodes.

As with Season 1, Angel of Darkness skewers themes relating to social status, discrimination based on sex and ethnicity, corrupt policing, and crony journalism.  One of the more interesting subplots in this season is the competing newspapers’ need for headline-grabbing: William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal versus the New York Times.

There are also a few clever gender reversals when it comes to who rescues a colleague from a beating, who’s marrying for money, and who has the courage to express their feelings towards the object of their affection.

In one particularly memorable scene, Sara Howard as a laser-focused Sherlock Holmes type, ponders a doll, purchased at a department store catering to the upper-class. Viewers watch a little girl innocently pick up an odd purple babydoll, which turns out to be a dead infant.

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery should be riveting enough for binge-viewing.

Availability:  TNT channel and TNT.com.  Season Two [The Alienist: Angel of Darkness] can be seen without having to watch Season One first.  Both seasons are excellent.

Note:  Newcomer Rosy McEwen is an actress to watch.  Reminding this viewer of Nicole Kidman both in superb skill and appearance, every scene she is in is unforgettable.

The series loosely ties itself to history. Howard, for instance, is (sort of) based on Isabella Goodwin, New York’s first female detective.

Note: For an interesting interview with the three main actors, see the Hollywood Reporter.

Dark Waters–Still an Abyss

Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller  directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol” and “Far from Heaven”).  The movie dramatizes the whistleblowing story of a cover-up of toxic waste.  We see close up the  corporate corruption involving Dupont’s manufacturing of Teflon.  The hero is Robert Bilott, (played by Mark Ruffalo of “I Know This Much is True”) an Ohio lawyer who spends more than  eighteen years proving that DuPont was responsible for poisoning the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with unregulated “forever” chemicals.

Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Dark Waters takes us on the journey by a tenacious attorney, Rob Bilott  to uncover the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. 

A growing number of unexplained farm animal deaths are brought to Bilott’s attention when a friend of his grandmother’s brings videotapes of pollution, dying cattle with gross mutations, and assorted abnormalities  on his farm.  Bilott naively believes when he brings this to DuPont’s attention,  they will comply voluntarily with the self-regulation of their toxic chemicals for the community’s welfare.

In the process of expecting cooperation, he risks everything — his future career, his family, and his own life — to expose the truth. DuPont has known for years through their own corporate research, that they were responsible for a shocking increase in cancer,  birth defects, death of livestock, and polluted river beds. They fight the lawsuit with the standard practice of deluging the plaintiff lawyer  with hundreds of boxes of documents, indirect and more direct threats of loss of employment, and corporate croneyism. 

This is no “Erin Brockovich”, but it is a close second. Corporate profits of over $1 billion per year were not going to be sacrificed by the regulation of their most profitable and monopolized product.  Dupont is caught in multiple lies from the CEO  on down, the company’s defenses refuted by the their  own studies.  Dark Waters highlights the necessity of compliance by independent agencies like the EPA and intrepid attorneys like Bilott.  Both are essential partners, as the EPA lacked power and failed to use what little regulatory authority they did have to eradicate Teflon from the market. 

 By the end of the film, we learn that 99% of everyone on the planet has Teflon in their bodies. A powerful multinational corporation aligned with the US government let this happen.  

Mark Ruffalo truly identifies with Bilott, giving an outstanding interpretation of the contribution the attorney has made to public safety. In outtakes at the end of the film, Rob Bilott and his wife are invited on set and interviewed.  In addition, victims who suffered from birth defects due to the chemicals in Teflon appear.  Several  victims  appear in the movie and one has a brief cameo role as well. 

Although DuPont should have suffered more, I highly recommend Dark Waters.

Availability: Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime streaming.

Note:   Teflon and its chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are still available in markets worldwide.

Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8 by Callie Lyons, a Mid-Ohio Valley journalist, was the first book to uncover the DuPont coverup at their site in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  And read the  follow-up on Lyons’ coverage in the May 2007 article in Mother Jones, “Teflon is Forever”

“Lila & Eve”–Loss Without Justice

Lila & Eve, a 2015 sleeper female vigilante thriller ,  stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as Lila and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) as Eve, The opening scene shows Lila’s 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), in a pool of blood from a drive-by shooting. A grief-fueled fragile mother is determined to fix her life: to bring the murderers of her son to justice so she can move on in nurturing her fourteen-year- old son.

Unsure how to go on with the effort of living, partly numbed by anti-anxiety drugs, Lila joins a  support group for moms who have lost children to gang violence.   Another grieving single mother, Eve, rejects the unbearable powerlessness of being told to move on as the appropriate way to respond to  grief.  And soon Lila admires Eve’s strength and anger at the apathy of the local police assigned to cases like theirs, which remain unsolved.  Their loss has no recourse or consequences for the murderer.  Neither Lila nor Eve wants to request justice like supplicants.  Soon both form a bond to exact justice for their children’s  unnecessary deaths.

It is the cops’ dismissiveness of Stephon’s death as just another casualty in the drug-turf wars that sets the plot into motion..  Lila is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and seeking empathy from  Eve is preferable to being told that she is fortunate to still have another child.  The newly aligned couple go on a rampage, as Eve cajoles Lila to go further to seek revenge.  Lila & Eve moves from hopelessness and despair midstream in this film to rage, and eventually regret, giving the drama its powerful hook that pulls the viewer in. 

Viola Davis never disappoints,  giving another impressive performance alongside  high-caliber acting by Jennifer Lopez. The two actors play perfectly as  counterparts in a dance of doom, danger, and death.

Understated yet gut-wrenching and heart-pumping,  Lila & Eve is a character study of the lacerating effects a tragic death has on the living.  Davis plumbs the depths of  anguish and psychological trauma in an electrifying performance that transforms this story  into something far beyond a typical revenge thriller. 

I was not sure what to expect from Lila & Eve but was pleasantly surprised by this relatively unknown, little-seen indie film.  Lila & Eve offers a powerful   portrait  of a mother’s pain and her need to relieve it.

Note: Available on Netflix Streaming and DVD.

“I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”–Don’t Watch This Alone at Night

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part HBO documentary series based on Michelle McNamara’s  book,  explores the author and  her obsessive investigation into the dark world of the “The Golden State Killer”  who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s.  It is mostly due to McNamara’s investigative reporting that this cold case was kept alive and solved.  Incredibly,  that didn’t happen until  late 2018 when the perpetrator was identified, charged and convicted of 50 rapes and 12 murders out of more than 100 known rapes.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints  an intricate tapestry of a convoluted flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. Bureaucratic dysfunction was rampant.  The lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, unwieldy early phase DNA technology, and a blatant sexist culture enabled the Golden State Killer to roam free for close to 40 years.  Victims were treated as responsible in part for  their rapes by the way they dressed and the way the women freely walked through their own suburban neighborhoods at night.  The  extensive archival footage as well as interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer are riveting.  More than forty years later, the viewer sees the horror of the crime itself as well as the sustained impact  on the victims and their families.  Interviews with the husbands or boyfriends are similarly unsettling as many of them were traumatized or in denial in a culture in which rape is not yet fully viewed for what it is…a violent, heinous crime.

One of the least expected features of  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the backstory of McNamara. Her sensitive uncovering of the cold cases of the women begins with her True Crime Diaries blog.   She hones her  skills as an amateur sleuth more competent than some of the police she deals with as she crosses the state looking for clues.  The subtext is her obsession with finding the rapist and murderer. She suspects from the beginning that the rapist is a solitary agent personifying “alchemized hate” for the victims.  It turns out that the victims are  stand-ins for a fiancée who broke off the assailant’s engagement.  His violence grows and the viewer sees him trespass, invade a home, violently assault his victims in the middle of the night, and then reach for a beer and food in the kitchen refrigerator.  Chilling indeed.

After more than  ten years of dogged analysis of internet clues, hunting for mementos the killer sold online, and visits to the victims’ homes, her determination to find the killer and rapist eventually exacts a toll on McNamara.   At first,  she feels that she manages the horrors of the crimes at arms-length.  But eventually, McNamara has to take sleeping pills and  anti-anxiety drugs, gets a gun and installs a complicated security system  as she is encouraged to write a book about her research. Tragically Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose while in reach of the deadline for her book.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a depiction of the most evil and poisonous of human acts, in scene after scene of crushing helplessness and the courage of the survivor, even when that horror was half a lifetime ago.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not for the faint-of-heart–and keep the lights on, if you decide to watch this!

Note: Joseph James DeAngelo, now seventy-four,  was finally identified, partly through McNamara’s detective work, in close collaboration with retired detectives, forensic specialists and geneticists who used a gene/ancestry database to track DeAngelo down.  He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and scores of rapes on June 29 and was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences without parole.

Note: Barbara Rae-Venter, a renowned geneticist,  is the main resource for solving the genetic puzzle that  emerged in the Golden State Killer investigation.  She has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in  arrests, not everyone in genetics database technology is  comfortable with the alliance with law enforcement.  See the August 29, 2018 article on Venter and the June 28, 2020 article on genetics genealogy and its methodology to identify the DNA.

Queen & Slim–Majestic Yet Thin

Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None”),  was influenced by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.  A story about police brutality and the stress and horror of daily life for a black person in America, Queen & Slim is a gripping fictional film that feels all too real.  

A first Tinder date– mediocre and uneventful–  takes an unexpected turn.  On their way home in a blustery winter night in Cleveland, a young couple are  pulled over for a minor traffic incident. Slim (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith)  are calm and cooperative.  The situation soon escalates. The policeman wounds Queen.  Slim, expecting to be next, grabs the officer’s gun,  shooting him in self-defense. Now targeted as cop-killers, Slim and Queen go  on the run. She is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose legal experience tells her that the court  is unlikely to give them a fair hearing.  Slim is, nevertheless, resistant  in accepting that he is now  a fugitive.

Unaware that the incident is captured on video and that the cop has a history of rogue murders, Queen and Slim unwittingly become a symbol of structural racism, trauma, terror, grief and pain for African Americans across the country. The video goes viral. The couple convince themselves that they should run, even though Queen knows that they are facing a death sentence. Slim is in denial.  But they still hope for a miracle while unable to plan an escape. In this thriller, where  a pair of young soon-to-be lovers are making a mad dash for freedom, the viewer is entangled emotionally with their inept  effort, hoping against odds that they will survive.

Queen & Slim is a difficult movie to review.  The film is deeply interesting, focused on legacy,  the power of memory and the symbols that propel political and social movements.   Queen & Slim  frames the plot on the history of  a nation infected by a racial inequality so virulent that good people are forced to take the law into their own hands. There is anger without apology, one of the most deeply moving themes in this movie.

The story is powerful, both politically charged and psychologically draining. The content of the film, however, is uneven and incompletely constructed.   Slim and Queen’s  characters are only loosely sketched,  particularly their backstory.  How did Queen become so successful in a courtroom often hostile to her clients?  Why is her relationship with her mother so dysfunctional?  How does Slim fall in love with someone so opposed to him?   

Kaluuya’s performance as the reticent and pure-hearted Slim, in deep denial that a crime was committed, is worth watching in itself.  And newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith matches his performance.  Even though the characters often don’t act rationally,  one has to be reminded that they are young, lonely, and want to have the thrill of romance. They suppress the  reality that  the police, at any moment, could overtake them.

More robust  portraits of Queen and Slim–their interior lives– would create scenes more personally compelling as well as more memorable.   Furthermore, the music track often disrupts the tension and momentum of the story.

Queen & Slim is a provocative, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently unsettling movie experience that is still very much worth seeing. It presents to the audience what it is like to have your grip on the world shattered while asking  what use that grip was anyway.

Note: Available on Netflix.