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Tribeca 2019: True Crimes and Misdemeanors

May 6, 2019

If I learned one thing from the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s that true crime doesn’t pay — most of the time. Four of the movies I saw were fictionalized versions of real-life crime stories, and the one based on the least familiar case proved the only gem.

The Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; the Manson family saga Charlie Says; and the thinly fictionalized Patty Hearst drama American Woman all committed the same misstep: trying to tell a breathe new life into a too-often-told story by shifting the point of view to bystanders with varying degrees of innocence. But by moving the focus away from the central criminal, the films lessened their impact.

Extremely Wicked is seen through the eyes of Bundy’s naive wife (Lily Collins). Charlie Says turns Manson into a supporting character for a tale of his female followers. And American Woman keeps almost all of Hearst’s law-breaking off-screen while dwelling on an activist (Downsizing standout Hong Chau) who gave her shelter.

Zac Efron and Matt Smith deliver solid work as Bundy and Manson, respectively, but Sarah Gadon barely registers as the Hearst character. The directors don’t reach the level of their previous work. Extremely Wicked pales by contrast to filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s Netflix docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says can’t compete with her superior shocker American Psycho. And Semi Challas — the Mad Men alum who made American Woman — seems to have edited out everything interesting from her 85-minute misfire.

Christoph Waltz makes none of these mistakes with his directorial debut Georgetown, in which he also stars as a character based on Albrecht Muth, a flamboyant fabulist who murdered his nonagenerian wife (Vanessa Redgrave, no less), a D.C. socialite, in 2011. Because most people don’t know the details of this story, it feels fresh, and Waltz keeps it zipping along with a zesty classical score and fine performances from his cast, which also boasts Annette Bening as the victim’s suspicious daughter.

The best crime stories I saw at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, however, were also set in our nation’s capitol, but they weren’t true — nor were they presented in films. The independent TV pilot D.C. Noir, an anthology comprised of four narrative threads set in the early 2000s, felt like it could become Washington’s version of The Wire. Not for nothing does it come from the mind of mystery novelist George Pelecanos, a D.C. denizen who wrote for David Simon’s seminal Baltimore drama. Which just goes to show truth isn’t always stranger, or more interesting, than fiction.

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