Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (Sydney Film Festival)
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…if you know your way around the case and the cultural artifacts it spawned, this is pretty familiar stuff.
The 1959 murders of the Clutter farming family in rural Kansas is one of the most famous crimes in 20th century American history, bested only by celebrity-studded atrocities such as the Manson Family murders and the killing of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman.
In point of fact, the spotlight of celebrity has a lot to do with that. News reports of the crime, which saw Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon killed in their home by drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in an attempted robbery, attracted the attention of celebrated writer Truman Capote, who in 1966 would publish the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, his account of the murders, investigation, trial, and eventual execution of the killers.
Capote’s novel was filmed twice (a feature in ’67, a TV miniseries in ’96) and the effete wordsmith’s own involvement spawned two recent movies: 2005’s Capote, which netted Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar, and 2006’s Infamous. Culturally speaking, this is well-turned earth. Still, true crime veteran Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) has seen fit to run the plough over it once more to see what gets uncovered.
The answer is not much that we haven’t seen before. Over the course of four episodes, Berlinger frames the Clutter case in the language of modern true crime filmmaking, assembling a montage narrative out of contemporary accounts and interviews with surviving witnesses and the relatives of the deceased. The recent uptick in this kind of series, which is all but ubiquitous on Netflix these days, means that the formal innovations Berlinger pioneered are very familiar to audiences now. The result is that Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is well made and engrossing, but doesn’t explore much in the way of new territory, either in content or execution.
It is very comprehensive, though, covering the murders, the personal histories of victims and perpetrators, the span from crime to punishment, and going beyond into the continuing effect on both those directly scarred by the events and those, like Capote, who chose to involve themselves in them. Still, if you know your way around the case and the cultural artifacts it spawned, this is pretty familiar stuff.