Warning: Some spoilers for Gone Girl follow. Not the big spoilers, but still.
A woman is the victim of a horrible crime. At first, her husband appears innocent. But then the evidence begins to turn against him. Suspicion winches tighter not just as new facts emerge, but as the media gains greater exposure to the story. It turns out that the husband was involved in extramarital affairs, which doesn’t help his case with the public. Nancy Grace bays for his blood across cable news. The man is eventually arrested for the crime. He has a savvy lawyer, but it’s unclear whether that can do anything for him. Especially since the real court is in public opinion.
Have I just described the plot of the new film Gone Girl or of the documentary The Staircase?
It is The Staircase, of course. But the only part of that description which disqualifies it from applying to Gone Girl is that it is not actually Nancy Grace who appears in that movie, but rather a character based on her. Both of these films delve deep into the unhealthy relationship between the media and the criminal justice system. Both of them follow well-to-do white men of ambiguous innocence. And both have so many twists and turns in their respective stories that attempting to summarize either succinctly would be a nightmare. They are a perfect matching, even if The Staircase, being a television miniseries over six hours in total length, requires a greater time commitment.
French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has made his bones dissecting the foibles and failings of law and order in the United States. He netted an Oscar for his 2001 documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, and The Staircase won a Peabody Award. Lestrade got in early with the family and defense team of Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen in December 2001. Michael claimed to have found Kathleen lying at the bottom of a staircase in their home, apparently having suffered an accident. But police investigators concluded that she died from wounds that suggest blunt object trauma, and suspicion immediately fell on Michael.
Peterson’s trial was one of the longest in North Carolina history, the verdict coming down nearly two years after Kathleen’s death. And Lestrade’s crew was there the entire time. As the 2004 miniseries follows the case, surprising details come out and secrets are revealed, with the prosecution using each new development to their advantage and the defense attempting to roll with the punches.
The Staircase could have been a two hour film, but its genius is in its meticulous attention to detail. No aspect of the case gets glossed over. Each development is inspected exactingly by multiple characters, the audience privy to all their points of view. Gone Girl director David Fincher is known for his obsession with procedure, and this is a movie after his heart. Like a lot of Fincher’s work, The Staircase revels in ambiguity and conflicting perspectives. The camera is a supremely objective eye, standing back and letting the audience judge for themselves what they think of Peterson, as well as of the actions of the defense and prosecution.
At two and a half hours, Gone Girl is a crime epic, but The Staircase dwarfs it. In both films, the news media recur as a Greek chorus, crowing over lurid details in a bid for attention. The main character of Gone Girl must contend with how the news depiction of him hurts his chances of fair treatment, and Peterson has the same problem. Guilty or not, the fact that extensive discussions are held over whether certain details should be admitted as evidence in the case are utterly ridiculous. That’s the kind of nutty minutiae that sensationalizes the dignity out of American law. Gone Girl mocks this lack of dignity, while The Staircase stoically observes it. Taken together, they paint quite a damning picture.
The Staircase is available on DVD via Docurama.