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HBO's The Staircase is a Masterful, Stark True Crime Epic

When David Fincher directed “Gone Girl,” a lot of hubbub was made about how he redesigned the interior of Gillian Flynn’s twisty airplane-ready novel into something more decadent, but just as addictive. Antonio Campos has accomplished more or less the same invigorating feat with HBO’s new miniseries “The Staircase,” which treats a true crime story with an incredible sense of style, urgency, and vision, all in support of a juicy, mega narrative that lives or dies on the integrity of its storyteller. “The Staircase” is both a masterful moment for an assured filmmaker, and it's the jolt that the true crime storytelling industry needs. 

Created and directed by Campos (Leigh Janiak directed two later episodes not offered to press), “The Staircase” is an American gothic about the modern family, which in this case includes many conflicted step siblings, wealthy parents with secrets, and giant splatters of blood at the bottom of a stairwell, dried into their Durham, North Carolina home as if it were always part of the wallpaper. Colin Firth stars in the series as Michael Peterson, who at the beginning of the series is accused of murder when his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) is found dead at said stairs, covered in her own blood, with extreme head trauma that suggests a beating. It’s far from an open and shut battle for justice, on either side of the court house. 

The mystery creates an immense divide between the extended family, including the children from Michael’s past marriages, who have always known him in a certain light. Michael has a history of manipulating people, and for making some big lies—like that he received a Purple Heart in combat, a lie that blew up in his face and haunts his current run for City Council. And it becomes clear that while Michael may or may not have been a murderer, he has other private manners he's only carefully shared with his closest circles. But how his loved ones see him might be able to help his image, like how his daughters are urged by his lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) to speak in front of the cameras. The children in "The Staircase" (played by Odessa Young, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, and Olivia DeJonge) visibly suffer for the sins of their parents, in public, and in the quiet, former shell of their home. 

But "The Staircase" takes the domestic tension even further, by reckoning with how we largely know about this event, focusing on the 2004 documentary that was made by French filmmakers led by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. "The Staircase" as a Russian doll saga is not just the possible murder, it’s how it became a story that was bent and revealed and protected, depending on who was telling it. The French angle is more and more integrated into the story (how perfect, given Campos’ French wannabe character study “Simon Killer”), but it also creates a revealing dynamic as the doc filmmakers stand in for the audience. Sitting at a diner, they analyze what they’ve just filmed, recreating the banter that comes with watching these stories. When they're inside the Peterson home, they alter the entire atmosphere, for us to see how a camera makes all the difference in how the truth comes out. 

Casting is an essential part of the process to an ensemble like this, and Campos stretches his many striking actors to points where the performances are unrecognizable and challenging. Firth takes his usually congenial, calm screen presence and shows us its flip side, that of being indignant, slippery and clumsy, like if a Eugene Levy character in a Christopher Guest movie were accused of first-degree murder. But with the framing of the entire story introducing Michael to us in both the year of the murder, 2001, and as a free man in 2017, Firth withholds the conscience of his character, while showing the explosive emotional needs of his character. He’s incredibly hard to read, and just as fascinating to watch. 

“The Staircase” subtly brings out great performances from other heavyweights, while giving many of them a distinct look: the series’ hair and make-up efforts make familiar faces like Rosemarie DeWitt, Juliette Binoche, and Parker Posey bizarrely difficult to recognize, paired with the cinematography’s high contrast lighting and pervasive shadows. (It’s not always raining in this show but it might as well be indoors.) Campos creates an uncanniness that draws you in more, and then he blocks numerous gruesome living room and kitchen table dialogue scenes so specifically, you can watch any character’s reaction to another and see a certain story that has been unspoken. The ensemble work in this series is a veritable feast, of calibrated performances, framing and editing, scene after scene. 

It all becomes a part of the sumptuous, meticulous nature of this tale that has a horror movie's ominous nature, and sometimes jolts you with dissonant strings from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, or an operatic (if sometimes indulgent) needle drop, or makes time for gorgeous, composed shots of styrofoam skulls that have been bashed in and covered in red corn syrup as part of the Durham DA’s desperate investigation. And in capturing so many different perspectives, it’s not uncommon for Campos to be visually unpredictable by jumping between timelines, just by shuffling one era of people out of the front door, and having another era enter it, as he does with the Peterson home, showing its two lives as a socialite hub and a crime scene. 

The humanity in “The Staircase” is always in the starkness, and Campos gets to its uncomfortable depths in ways that are darkly comic—during an Empty Nester Party at the Peterson home in a flashback, Kathleen gets drunk and jumps off-frame into a swimming pool, only to injure herself; her subsequent neck brace becomes foreshadowing about the latest injury that might befall her. Kathleen’s story is given a great deal of love by Collette's embrace of her own idiosyncrasies, and makes for its own harrowing plot about what she was worried about up to the days of her death. She then portrays a grueling (possible) accident reenactment that shows just how visceral, head-slamming stuntwork and editing can make for a show-stopping sequence, albeit of the most cryptic kind. 

Campos has always had a sense of this cryptic as a storyteller (with "Christine" and "Afterschool") but to see it play across multiple hour-long episodes, in a form that welcomes a low standard, is absolutely exhilarating. There is no passive, distancing nature to “The Staircase,” despite how true crime regularly lets us treat other families’ horror stories like car accidents we pass on the highway. Campos’ version of must-watch entertainment is about making us sit in the wreckage. And it is beautiful. 

Four episodes screened for review. "The Staircase" premieres on HBO Max tomorrow, May 5th.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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