The non-fiction programs at South by Southwest are typically some of the strongest at any large festival. The programmers here usually assemble a diverse array of stories, from a larger-than-average number of personal stories to timely examinations of the state of the world. A trio of docs that caught my eye this year at SXSW spoke to personal interests like financial investing and, well, murder. Confession time: I’m a true crime guy. I don’t miss a “Dateline NBC,” Iwatch all the Netflix docuseries, and listen to podcasts like “My Favorite Murder,” “Morbid,” and “The Trail Went Cold.”
And so I was instantly drawn to the premise of Chris Kasick’s fascinating “Citizen Sleuth,” one of the best dissections of our current obsession with true crime that I’ve ever seen. Most of the criticism of the craze out there feels judgmental and superficial, throwing out comments on how exploitative the genre can be or dismissing viewer/listener interest in it as facile. By focusing on one podcaster’s journey through her career and a singular case, Kasick finds the gray area that the best true crime journalists have to navigate.
How does a podcaster stay objective when their bottom line is based on mystery more than truth? If a case ends, the advertising dollars do too. As Emily Nestor, the host of “Mile Marker 181” (which I had listened to in part, by the way), discovers that the case that she has built her career around may be a house of cards, “Citizen Sleuth” goes from an interesting personality piece to something richer that speaks to the entire world of true crime. I’d be stunned if Netflix or Hulu weren’t negotiating for this one right now. It’s a film that doesn’t just fit right next to one of their most successful sections, it interrogates it.
At first, I was a little thrown by Kasick’s approach, and I do think the first act of “Citizen Sleuth” feels like it’s looking down a bit on the people in this Appalachian corner of the world. That’s where the smart and engaging Nestor lives. She is reportedly unhappy about her portrayal in “Citizen Sleuth,” but I found her engaging, charismatic, and ultimately sympathetic. A massive fan of “The Silence of the Lambs,” Nestor wants to be Clarice Starling for the podcast era. And so she starts a podcast that investigated the death of a woman named Jaleayah Davis in 2011. Davis was found dead on the side of Interstate 77, and her injuries were odd enough to suggest a deeper investigation. Briefly, it looked more like she had been hit by a car than thrown from one in an accident, and she had been in a fight earlier that evening. Rushed police work and suspicious behavior of other people that night led to the creation of “Mile Marker 181”.
From the beginning, the investigation around the accident by Nestor and her team feels like it’s stretching—they even claim that the main suspect used to be a bed wetter, for example. Not exactly evidence. As it develops, “Citizen Sleuth” reveals itself to be more than just a study of how wannabe profilers now become podcasters when Nestor interviews the legendary investigator Paul Holes about the evidence around the case, and, well, he destroys every potential criminal theory. He basically solves the case, and that’s not a good thing for a podcaster—which is kind of problematic, right? We have an entire industry built on NOT solving cases because, as Nestor says at one point, “It’s hard to prove a murder when there wasn’t one.”
True crime isn’t going anywhere. It’s bigger than ever. And I do think there are ways to do it well—I would recommend all three podcasts in the intro above for examples. There are also a LOT of bad ones out there that blur the line. I truly hope the best for Nestor. She has pulled her podcast. She doesn’t like this movie. It all probably hurts right now, but she is an engaging personality with a passion for what she does. And I think all of this could do some good in the end if future podcasters watch “Citizen Sleuth” and ask themselves the questions at the core of this movie before turning tragedy into profit.
There’s nothing that feels exploitative about the true crime doc “Last Stop Larrimah,” which premiered at SXSW before an HBO drop later this year, although the tone does sometimes verge, like the opening act of “Citizen Sleuth,” on something that's making fun of small town life. I think there’s a version of this twisted tale that has a little more affection for the people of Larrimah (and runs much shorter than this 120 minutes), but there’s enough to like here in a well-done true crime doc. I bet Emily Nestor will dig it.
Larrimah is an outpost in the Australian outback with a population of 11. Wait, no 10. Yes, it’s a murder story in a town so small that everyone who lives there literally knows everyone else who lives there. It’s almost an Agatha Christie story in that someone in the room must have done it. Produced by Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass, “Last Stop Larrimah” opens as a story of a quaint, simple part of the world, only to push in and reveal incredible infighting, grudges, and histories among these people. Who killed Paddy Moriarty? Believe it or not, half the town could be considered a reasonable suspect.
Thomas Tancred breaks his true story up into five chapters, but they’re not distinct enough. I think there could have been a better way to structure the film, perhaps focusing one at a time on key suspects like the unforgettable Fran, who sells meat pies that people come to get from miles away, or Barry, the pub owner who often kicked Paddy out for being too drunk. Disputes over dogs, lots of booze, and general hostility led to the disappearance and presumed death of Paddy, but this is more a study of a region than a whodunit. It’s one of those well-made films that reveals the little towns you pass by on your way to somewhere that has secrets too. And some of them include murder.
It’s not a true crime documentary per se, but Ondi Timoner’s “The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution” certainly includes some white-collar nonsense that could be called criminal. Timoner crams so much information into her documentary about the financial insanity that unfolded ever since everyone was handed a check during the pandemic in an era wherein they could drop that money into the stock market just by using their phones. The director of “We Live in Public” is interested in how tech has impacted finance in the 2020s, using a meme-driven approach to tell the story of what has basically been a revolution, shifting power away from Wall Street to everyday Americans. Timoner's film suffers by trying to do too much too quickly, pushing so many ideas into one film in an effort to almost overwhelm the viewer instead of educating them.
A result of her frantic approach is that it feels like interview subjects are never challenged, and the film is forced to draw lines that are tenuous at best. By the time Timoner connects the financial insurrection of something like WallStreetBets to the actual riots at The Capitol, it feels like the thread of the film is frayed at best. Yes, they’re both about overthrowing power, and both are organized online, but they come from very different disenfranchised parts of this country, and pushing everything under the same banner of “revolution” does no good.
Timoner wants to provoke. There’s no other explanation for using people like Jordan Belfort (the guy Leo played in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) or Anthony Scaramucci as subjects. And she leans so hard into the meme culture of Reddit boards that the film gains the same superficiality. Timoner seems entranced by the spirit of it all more than digging into the social and economic reasons behind it. The film increasingly allows people to make broad, generalized statements about power and investing without follow-up before jetting off to the next meme or talking point.
When the main guy behind Dogecoin speaks of how Elon Musk joking about it on “Saturday Night Live” literally tanked his bottom line, there’s room to explore how personality, culture, and investment have become so intertwined. But the film is too hurried to do so. “The New Americans” captures a time when fortunes are made and lost in the blink of an eye, but I’m waiting for the documentary that digs into the what and why instead of just clicking on the next thing that catches its attention.