Okay so here’s a real thing that happened.
Content warning: Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Murder, Slavery
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for the movie and the real events around the movie
Let me tell you this story the way this story is told in the movie.
Michael Finkel, a journalist, is fired from his day job at The New York Times Magazine, for making stuff up in a story about slavery that he presented, a violation of basic journalism practices. He is then contacted by a reporter for The Oregonian who wants to know what he thought of the family murderer who had provided his name to the authorities when he was arrested.
He finds this weird, and contacts the murderer, looking for answers to his questions, why, why did he do that, why has he been accused of killing his wife and three children, and what really happened.
Eventually, it is revealed that what happened is exactly what he was arrested for: He murdered his wife and children, then tried to hide the bodies, then when he was arrested, tried to give a fake name.
This story is remarkable because it asks the question: What’s going on? And it’s unremarkable because the answer is ‘exactly what it looks like.’ A man who killed his family and tried to cover it up came up with a fanciful story to try and avoid consequences. The movie tries out a few alternate theories, a few suggestions, but nothing so gauche as to suggest an interesting answer, and culminates with a end card that Finkel and the murderer still correspond monthly.
And that’s it.
I was fascinated by this movie when I saw it put in my recommendations because it’s literally called true story and a description that made it clear it was about a real event that really happened. I figured this meant that the story had a germ of a true narrative, and that then the story would go a bit wild and the fun of the article about it was going to be breaking down the movie to find the reality of the history underneath it. I basically expected the movie to be more interesting and to then present me with a fun puzzle decoding what really happened.
As best I can tell based on the sources I have, this movie is both a reasonable representation of the factual events it accounts. It is just that simple; a dude committed a terrible crime, then attempted to claim he was someone else, and the someone else he claimed to be was a name he got from a journalist he remembered, which got the attention of that journalist, who investigated it, and found… Yeah, the dude just remembered his name.
Which is kind of weird?
It’s kind of weird because I’m surprised at the restraint of the movie in recording this story. It deliberately looked at a story with the same level of coincidence as you might go ‘oh that’s weird,’ and builds its drama about answering that question. About why, the question lurks, why a person in a prison cell might have accidentally signalled you, a writer, who can tell their story, and what it is they hope you tell?
What do you mean but? But what? but, the movie says it’s a true story, the events factually happened, and it avoids getting ridiculous, right? What’s but?
But is not that this is a true story, but this is one truth of one story.
There’s a whole story here about two men who faced consequences for doing things they knew they shouldn’t do, and how both of them get second chances. And that’s true. The murderer is in a prison cell, yes, but he’s not going to die; even on death row, in the state he’s in, unless something politically changes about executions in that state, he’s not going to get executed. He lives in a jail cell, and yes, those prisons are bad, and I’m not pro-prison here, nor am I pro-death penalty, but he’s being published in the prison’s newsletters because, as Finkel points out here, he’s a very good writer. Finkel is now a respected writer who did that thing one time, and he and the murderer communicate regularly.
What I want to focus on here, though, is the material conditions; Finkel and the murderer have both had their stories made into a movie.
But there’s another truth in the story.
A truth that’s much shorter and much more abrupt.
This story is about a woman named Mary Jane. She was a Jehovah’s Witness; she was a mother of three. At the age of thirty four, she had a four year old son, a three year old son, and a two year old daughter. Her story was that of someone who lived a life, grappled with financial insecurity, and tried to do her best being active in her church, modest in her life, and all while in a home where she was living with someone who was hiding a darkness inside.
The movie doesn’t care much about her.