From murderous billionaires to serial killers, these true crime movies will leave you wondering what's real and what's fiction.
The true crime genre is often criticized for romanticizing violence, but real-life crime stories still spark much interest in the audience and top the lists of the best pictures of all time — think of David Fincher's Zodiac, which is an artistic rendering of the non-fiction story of serial killer Zodiac who, incidentally, was never caught. Here's a list of top-four documentary productions exploring true crime stories.
The Ripper, Netflix
Following the Yorkshire Ripper and his murders, Jesse Vile's four-part documentary film focuses on the disastrous consequences of victim-blaming and gender inequality in late 1970s England. When several heinous murders of young girls occurred in the economically depressed areas in the country's north, the police and the public remained uninterested, believing that the serial killer would only attack prostitutes. The fatal misjudgement delayed the investigation for years and led to the Yorkshire Ripper committing more crimes.
The Ripper tells little about the actual serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, but instead explores the stories of the girls who encountered the maniac. It also illuminates the cultural and social aspects of the Ripper case: the life of industrial Manchester in the 1970s, local women's outraged response to the protracted investigation, and the imprint that the tragic story has had on the lives of English cities and their residents.
Crazy, Not Insane, HBO
Not a single documentary filmmaker, even the most talented one, has been able to find the unequivocal answer to the question of what compels a person to commit murder. Psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis has devoted her life to this question, and the documentary film sheds light on her views on the matter. Dr. Lewis' research was first concerned with dissociative disorders caused by childhood trauma. The psychiatrist interviewed famous criminals, including John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman, and became the go-to person for legal professionals.
Alex Gibney's film explores the important ethical questions that arise in violent crime investigations: the permissibility of the death penalty, the importance of rehabilitation for criminal offenders, and most importantly, the difference between the legal and psychiatric view of sanity, which is often what leads to controversial verdicts in court.
Our Father, Netflix
In the early 2010s, Jacoba Ballard took an at-home DNA test hoping to find her blood brothers and sisters: the woman knew her parents had trouble conceiving so they sought help from a fertility doctor. It turned out that Jacoba had more than a dozen siblings, which is abnormal because sperm from a single donor can only be used two or three times. Ballard united with her new-found siblings to discover the shocking truth: their biological father is Dr. Donald Cline who used his own sperm to inseminate almost a hundred unsuspecting patients.
However, the creepiest part of the story is the lack of legal consequences for Cline: at the time he stood trial, the doctor was not convicted of medical malpractice because the court had no legal grounds to charge him. Also unsettling is the fact that most of Cline's children have light skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, which suggests that the fertility doctor's actions were motivated by his fascist beliefs.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, HBO
The Jinx series is a prime example of the media's influence on our lives and a mind-blowing story of monstrous vanity. Robert Durst, a heir to a multi-million dollar real estate empire, has been suspected of murder on three different occasions: his wife went missing in 1982, then his girlfriend was killed in 2000, and in 2001, the police found evidence to suggest his involvement in another brutal murder.
More important than Durst's ability to get away with these crimes is the HBO series itself and what was uncovered during its filming. After Durst watched the Ryan Gosling–led 2010 feature film inspired by his life, he contacted director Andrew Jarecki and offered him a series of TV interviews — and, despite the moral concerns, the filmmaker couldn't refuse the offer.
A shocking thing happened after one of the interviews: Durst went to the bathroom unaware that his microphone was still recording and made an off-camera statement to himself: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." The tape was immediately sent to the police.