TV Review: 'The Staircase'
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's cinéma vérité miniseries The Staircase captivates in its study of the ambiguities of the 2001 Michael Peterson murder case – it’s an understated exploration of a bizarre true story with bizarre real characters.
The Sundance Channel is having an encore showing of the 2004 series, this time with two new episodes added (The Staircase: Last Chance). From a distance, the series seems like a cookie cutter 48-hour murder mystery segment you might see on A&E. It’s not. It’s an original documentary with unique visual rhythms and editing patterns. With extensive behind the scenes footage, the series masterfully presents the complexities of the murder case, following the defense team with an intriguing fly–on-the-wall style.
The case surrounds the death of Kathleen Peterson, Durham author Michael Peterson’s wife, who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of their family home. Murder or accident? Contradictory evidence and conflicting personalities make it extremely difficult to decide. With evidence like dramatic gashes on the back of Kathleen’s head and splattered blood on the walls, you’re led to think murder, but opposing evidence like Peterson’s pleasant demeanor and the supportive testimony of friends and families suggest accident.
The miniseries impressively refuses to take a pronounced stand, actively cultivating an aura of instability and changing perspectives. It’s difficult to form and maintain a judgment about any of the characters: You’ll find Peterson and attorney David Rudolf, for instance, to be charming and sympathetic one minute, suspicious and disingenuous the next.
Though not flashy, it’s hard to look away from this documentary, as new clues, buried secrets, and twists keep things consistently engaging. The editing and wandering camerawork give the film a distinctive voice, though the film appears very hands-off and observational, producing some haunting cinematic moments throughout the series. Additionally, the camerawork manifests the uncertainty of the case – never landing on one piece of evidence too long, images of the lacerated body are always fleeting or obscured by unusual angles. It’s hard to get a concrete read on anything or anyone.
There’s also some subtle dark humor throughout the film, found mostly in some unsettling behind-closed-doors sarcastic banter overheard between members of the defense team, and some amusing visual juxtapositions of the unfolding events. There’s a terrific whacky scene involving an over-zealous witness coach and Peterson with all kinds of weird stuff going on under the radar. And the theatricality displayed by many of the characters – particularly Peterson and Rudolph – contributes to the series’ savvy exploration of the line between truth and performance.
The two new episodes – part recap/part update, set eight years down the road, have a less interesting style and use more traditional documentary techniques. The second one is better and more powerful than the first, though neither are bad by any means: They simply lack some of the others’ momentum.
Overall, the series is a well-made and anti-formulaic crime show. If you’re looking for any kind of satisfaction or closure, you won’t find it, but with a story this good, you don’t need it.
The Staircase debuts tonight (1/7), 9pm, on the Sundance Channel.