USA, 2017, Erin Lee Carr, 82 min.
If you were to scroll through the list of podcasts that I listen to, you would notice something. Amidst all of the gaming, movie and old time radio podcasts, you would see a lot of True Crime podcasts. A lot. Probably more than is acceptable.
I’ve been interested in True Crime since I was a little kid. Jack the Ripper, Zodiac, Son of Sam, I voraciously read anything I could get my hands on. Nowadays I’ve traded in books for podcasts and ones like Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, Serial Killers, Sword and Scale, and Casefile are usually playing in my ears. I had heard of the unfortunately story of DeeDee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose through Sword and Scale and when it was announced that HBO was doing a documentary about this horrific tale, I was looking forward to a thoughtful, well made, intriguing piece about what happens when the ones you love are actually harming you.
If you’re not familiar about the case of DeeDee and Gypsy here is the condensed version (SPOILERS): After disturbing posts are seen on DeeDee and Gypsy’s facebook wall it has been discovered that DeeDee has been murdered and her disabled daughter Gypsy has disappeared. The truth of the matter is that Gypsy is not disabled, her boyfriend has killed DeeDee and the two of them have run away together. What comes to light is one of the most disturbing cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy in recent history.
First off, the documentary has no buildup. Everything you need to know about the crime is spelled out for you in the first 15 minutes. You don’t find out clues about DeeDee’s murder as the story unfolds, the director just plops everything in your lap and then spends the rest of the movie sprinkling in little details, many of which are only mildly interesting at best. I remember my stomach dropping when I first heard the story, hearing how Gypsy was sick, how she was disabled, how she was in and out of hospitals, and then finding out that she could indeed walk, could indeed function on her own and how she had her mother murdered. I remember the shocked look on my face while I was listening to Sword and Scale at the slow reveal of what actually was going on in the Blanchard household. You won’t get any of that from this documentary, all of your twists and turns are given up from the beginning.
The film also spends a lot of time bashing DeeDee. Look, I think she was a horrible disgusting human being but I don’t need to hear 50 people bashing her and calling her evil for an hour, her actions alone hammer that home. Like all documentaries, this one has a viewpoint that it wanted to tell, but as the viewer I could definitely feel that it was trying to manipulate me into agreeing with the filmmaker. DeeDee was evil, yes, but it wasn’t because she wanted to study witchcraft (oh the horror of nature goddesses!!!). Nick and Gypsy’s relationship was unhealthy but not because he wanted to try BDSM and put naughty Disney pictures on Gypsy’s facebook wall. Linking these things exclusively to “evil” or “bad” is exactly why people can’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy. BDSM in it of itself does not equal bad and Witchcraft in it of itself does not equal evil and I was getting incredibly annoyed at the filmmaker for trying to sensationalize those aspects to get me to jump on the bashing bandwagon.
My other issue with the documentary is that the filmmaker doesn’t bother to give you any information as to who people are that don’t already belong to the case. Things like “Gypsy’s father” or “Gypsy’s Attorney” were fine, but a Buzzfeed reporter named Michelle Dean was featured predominantly in the movie and was just given the title “Buzzfeed Reporter”. It seemed the like director just expected you to know who Michelle Dean was, or as I thought for a bit, she was some friend of the director that was put in the documentary. I did scream at my tv a number of times asking who this person was and why she was being interviewed so often, but my TV remained silent so I had to do my own research.
For those of you who also may not know who Michelle Dean is, she wrote a lengthy article about the murder on Buzzfeed. It could have taken five seconds to explain that in the documentary. Also (maybe because I’m old and crotchety), Buzzfeed is not really my go to place for exceptional journalism. Stupid lists about toupee’s for cats, yes, journalism, not so much.
And this is the crux of my issue with the presentation of the story. Shoddy film-making, lackluster storytelling and odd choices in sources just made this documentary good at getting out the facts but not good at fully explaining the intricacies. It didn’t know how to handle its time and it showed. I will note that Gypsy is interviewed in this documentary and if you already know the story, I would suggest watching her interview. My heart breaks for Gypsy, as she will always have to live with what happened that night but at the same time I’m glad that she’s finally getting to live some sort of life, even if it will be behind bars for a little bit.
It is hard to write a review about a real life event that is this horrific without sounding cold or uncaring about the people involved. Please know that I am critiquing the documentary itself, not the real life events. I am both happy and sad for Gypsy, happy that she is out of such an abusive situation, but sad that it had to come to what it did for her to escape. Other than Gypsy’s interview, and if I’m being totally honest, I would just skip the HBO documentary and instead listen to the podcast episode of Sword and Scale.