Judge George Hatch watched in awe as the perfect, fairy tale couple became a horror show. Prince Charming didn't leave any prints, but will he Frey anyway?
"The press has a victim. Now they want a villain."—Scott Peterson
Those two lines from The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story perfectly describe the media indictment and trial that Scott Peterson received months before the actual murder case even reached a courtroom. This made-for-TV movie tries to remain neutral, recreating the events from the morning of Laci's reported disappearance to Scott's ultimate arrest. The usual disclaimer at the end of the film states, "Although the preceding drama is based on actual events, certain composites and representative characters have been created for dramatic purposes." This is one of the few times in which the liberties taken work in favor of the film—except for the main character.
Facts of the Case
Scott Peterson still stands accused of killing his wife, Laci—who was eight months pregnant with their son Connor—on Christmas Eve, 2002. The "perfect husband" claims to have gone fishing—yes, on Christmas Eve—with little to support his alibi, save for a receipt from the marina confirming that his boat had been taken out that night. Suspects ranged from a jealous ex-boyfriend to a satanic cult that had performed a ritual sacrifice. The jury has yet to deliver a verdict as new evidence is introduced and testimonies are debunked on a weekly basis. The decomposed bodies of Laci and Connor washed ashore in April 2003. On the very day this interview is being written (September 15, 2004), the New York Post reported, "Barnacles were found growing on Laci's body, and a strip of duct tape was attached to her leg." A witness for the prosecution (a criminologist for the California Department of Justice) "bolstered claims that [Laci] had been weighted in the water with something that allowed the slow-growing barnacles enough time to latch on…"
Although subtitled The Laci Peterson Story, the film is all about Scott, and speculation about his activities and mind-set during the four months he was the law's prime target.
The tightly written script by Dave Erickson (Murder in Greenwich) has most of the technical facts in place, omitting some (see suspects above) and exaggerating only a few, such as the police "following up 8,000 tips" while only 2,300 were reported in the Modesto Bee. Erickson also tries to balance any preconceptions viewers may have about the case by alternating scenes between two dogged detectives convinced of Scott's guilt, with those of Peterson's two best friends who have total faith in his innocence.
But unbiased objectivity takes a nosedive with Dean Cain's portrayal of Peterson. Cain is excellent in the role, disguising his own personal charm with Peterson's arrogance and counterfeit sincerity, but there isn't enough ambiguity in his performance. I think the fault lies in the direction and the dialogue Cain was given. He's made to look too shifty and calculating when answering routine police questions in the opening scenes. In no time he's calling his on-the-side girlfriend, Amber Frey, smirking as he tells her, "Don't worry, sweetie, in a little while I'll be all yours." With that one line and expression, Peterson comes off looking guilty as sin in the first 15 minutes. If it was Cain's choice to smirk, then the director should have told him not to, and maybe that line could have slipped by.
When Laci's brother, Dennis, confronts Scott about his unacknowledged affair, he says, "But I loved Laci!" Dennis catches the past tense, so Scott quickly reiterates, "I love her." I can't count the number of times that clichéd routine has been used, but the one that really ticked me off was an assumption "worded" by Sharon Rocha, Laci's mother. "Why did he use the word 'missing' when he called? Why didn't he say 'Laci's not here.'—or—'I can't find her.' He said 'missing,' like he'd thought the whole thing through." Sure, you could write that off to dramatic license; but if one of my cats was out sowing his oats and didn't come back the next morning, I'd be knocking on my neighbor's doors telling them he's "missing" and asking if they'd seen him.
Scott Peterson was indeed "consistently media-shy," and when relatives and friends urge him to make a public statement he tells them, "I'll just break up on camera." A half-hour later, he says, "I can't cry on cue just to make myself look good." His guileful persona shouldn't come through until he finally agrees to a live interview on Good Morning America. Cain is absolutely brilliant in this scene, expertly mimicking Peterson's furtive looks and haltingly deliberated answers, while avoiding eye contact with the camera as often as possible. You'd think you were watching an actual clip of the show. Obviously, Cain had the looks and acting chops for the role of Scott Peterson, and the physical similarities were creepily boosted when he assumed the dyed hair, moustache, and goatee of Peterson on the run. Unfortunately, self-condemning dialogue and ill-advised direction undermined his performance. The rest of the cast is uniformly better than expected.
Dean Cain hit the big time in 1993 playing Superman on Lois and Clark, a terrific series that lasted four years. He was also the family-friendly host on a number of TV shows, including Ripley's Believe It or Not! To change his image, he started taking riskier film roles, like Cole, the promiscuous bed-hopper in The Broken Hearts Club, a gay comedy drama, and the abusive husband in Carl Franklin's Out of Time. His performance as Scott Peterson might have been Emmy-worthy had he been better directed.
The only other familiar name in the cast is Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling), playing Laci's mother with heart-breaking intensity. Television actors and bit players fill out the other roles. David Denman (The Singing Detective (2003)) and Sarah Brown (As the World Turns) bring emotional depth to Tommy and Kate Vignatti, Peterson's closest friends who were devastated by his arrest. Paul Vincent O'Connor (Seabiscuit) is equally effective as Laci's brother, Dennis. G.W. Bailey (Police Academy) costars as the determined Detective Gates, hound-dogging Peterson throughout the film, desperate for the day "I can put the cuffs on him myself." Tracy Middendorf (Wes Craven's New Nightmare) has the thankless role of Amber Frey. She looks a little like Jennifer Aniston, and beautifully explores the range of emotions from affection, confusion, fear, and ultimately, horror and grief.
Director Roger Young is a made-for-TV veteran specializing in Biblical epic-ettes like Jesus, Joseph, and Moses. He also has several real-crime dramas to his credit, including the highly rated Murder in Mississippi and Nightmare in Columbia County. I found the same faults with the main characters in the latter two films as I did with Cain's. Young has a flair for storytelling and an eye for composition, but he should keep his leads a little off-kilter so viewers shouldn't know what to expect. Otherwise, he can chalk up another winner with The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story. It's a fast-paced 84 minutes, and several of the dolly shots are quite impressive. One starts with a close-up of Peterson sitting at a table; the camera slowly pulls back down a long hallway, showing the walls literally closing on him. Toward the end, the camera speeds forward, maneuvering through a string of reporters, each delivering an update on Peterson's capture. I also liked the intimate soft-focus split-screen close-ups Young used for all but one of the Scott and Amber phone conversations. In the last, the camera pulls back on her side of the screen to reveal the police taping everything they say, solidly confirming the break in their relationship.
Columbia TriStar's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is quite impressive for a television movie, with nicely defined contrast and rich color. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is of almost equal quality. There are no related extras on the disc, but you can watch four trailers for other films: The Company, The Fog of War, Secret Window, and Whale Rider.
The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story is rated PG-13 for a few words you'll hear only on cable television. There is nothing at all explicit or gruesome on display. Even when the bodies are discovered, they are kept off camera. It's a surprisingly well done "made-for-TV" movie. If you want the real background info and updates about the case, visit the Scott Peterson News Archives.
Not guilty! That's for the film. I have my own thoughts about the guilty (until proven innocent) Scott Peterson, and hope there's not another "O.J." miscarriage of justice in this case.
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