Judge Bryan Byun spent three hours with the Green River Killer. If anyone wants him, he'll be huddled in a fetal position behind his couch.
For nearly 20 years, the Green River Killer haunted Washington State with a series of shocking murders. Told through the eyes of a young runaway, the Lifetime miniseries The Capture of the Green River Killer details how fate, bad luck and unwise choices led to Helen "Hel" Remus' encounter with the notorious serial killer. Leading the hunt for the murderer is Sheriff David Reichert (Tom Cavanagh, Ed), who becomes so entangled in the case that he's willing to risk his family and career to find justice for the slain girls.
Between 1982 and 1998, the Green River Killer murdered at least 49 (but probably 71 or more) women in Washington state. So named because of the location where his first five victims were found, the Green River Killer preyed on prostitutes and runaways, gaining their trust (usually by showing them a photo of his son) and luring them into his truck. Detective David Reichert was a leading member of the Green River Task Force created to track down the killer. Based on Reichert's book, Chasing the Devil, The Capture of the Green River Killer is a slightly fictionalized, step-by-step account of the harrowing, decades-long hunt.
The "slightly fictional" element of the story is the protagonist, Helen (Amy Davidson, The Truth About Jane), a character created to act as a narrator of the events and to give a human, relatable face to the Killer's long list of victims. Beginning with the discovery of the first bodies in the Green River, the story has two focuses. One is Helen's unhappy journey from abused teen—she's mistreated by her mother, who's told Helen she tried to abort, and raped by her mother's boyfriend—to drug-addicted prostitute. The other is about Reichert, a straight-arrow, religious family man drawn into a horrific, soul-crushing investigation that threatens his spiritual beliefs and his relationships with his wife and daughter.
At three deliberately paced hours, The Capture of the Green River Killer is thorough to a fault, dutifully following Reichert down every blind alley and documenting every red herring. The problem with this approach is that since this is a nonfictional story of a well-documented case, most people who have any interest in the Green River Killer already know his identity, so the amount of time spent on suspects we know aren't the Killer makes for some tough sledding.
Adding to the sluggishness is the fact that the Green River case, while certainly dramatic in many aspects, doesn't appear to have been an especially cinematic investigation; bodies are found, evidence is recovered, suspects and witnesses are questioned, all by a determined but fairly mundane group of law enforcement officers. While there's enough happening to hold the viewer's attention—one scene has Reichert facing off Lecter-style (well, a little, anyway) with the infamous Ted Bundy, portrayed with sleazy charm by James Marsters—and director Norma Bailey does her best to keep the storytelling lively with dramatic camera shots and split-screen sequences, Seven this isn't. Or even Zodiac.
I'm not sure what to make of the character of Helen, who's either the best or the worst thing about The Capture of the Green River Killer. On the one hand, we spend a considerable amount of time delving into the traumatic upbringing and sad, sordid life—and death—of a person who doesn't even exist. Obviously, we're meant to understand that Helen is the voice of the dozens of silenced victims who can no longer speak for themselves. But there's something about the idealized portrait of Helen, the tarnished angel, that feels manipulative and sentimental.
On the other hand, how many movies or TV shows about serial killers bother with the victims as anything other than mutilated corpses and poorly-lit photos tacked to a bulletin board? This being a Lifetime production, it's no surprise that we see so much of the women and their relationships: Helen's intense but troubled friendship with her best friend Nat (Jessica Harmon) and her tragically dysfunctional family life that fractures her self-worth and colors her expectations of the world, particularly men. And despite the lack of Fincheresque fireworks or descents into madness set to industrial music, the female-centric perspective works; Helen's fictional, but true to life, story is certainly more affecting than Cavanaugh's stolid, square detective. He's like Twin Peaks' Agent Dale Cooper, played unironically. Unlike the plodding investigation scenes, the time we spend with Helen—seeing where the Killer's victims came from, how they ended up where they did, what led them to become prey for a psychopath—is time well spent. In fact, a shorter film that focused on Helen's world probably would have made for a more effective drama.
Reichert actually ends up being the weak link in his own auto-hagiography. I have to wonder how much of his portrayal in this miniseries is the real Reichert, and how much is mere image-polishing. Is Reichert really the squeaky-clean, God-fearing family man we see here, who consistently out-thinks and out-hunches the ineffectual FBI agents and overbearing superiors who get in the way of his hunt? It doesn't matter, really; whether true or not, the "Reichert" we get here is a virtual non-entity, an oddly passive, uninvolving character who—as played by the likable, but gravitas-impaired, Cavanaugh—is seldom the most interesting thing about any scene he's in.
A&E's presentation of The Capture of the Green River Killer is a bare bones affair: two discs with no special features. Video is adequate but inconsistent, the digital transfer displaying fine detail in some scenes, but leaving others with a slightly hazy sheen. Audio, presented in digital stereo, is fine, but nothing special.
It's tough to know what to make of The Capture of the Green River Killer. It's by turns manipulative, sentimental, simplistic, and boring. On the other hand, it offers moments of genuine pathos, and a perspective on the true crime, serial killer genre that isn't seen enough. This isn't great television or especially remarkable storytelling, but as a straightforward, sincere, and empathetic dramatization, it holds its own as a watchable, informative production.
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