Content based on true crime is often much more harrowing than fiction because it’s essentially a factual retelling, there’s nothing questioning its existence. And, as it taps into the bleakest facets of humanity, you’re forced to wonder whether what you are seeing is really a product of one’s imagination. This feeling is dialled up even further during dramatic portrayals of true crime. Documentaries and docuseries keep you rooted in reality, films with Jake Gyllenhaal as an unduly inquisitive lead probably don’t. That’s why I prefer the latter, they’re engineered by a cast and crew subsumed by the crime they are showing. Here are some of my favourite films and shows, streaming online, that shine a strange, dark light on crooks, criminals, and cops.
Available On: Amazon Prime Video and Netflix
Zodiac has often been regarded as the All the President’s Men of true-crime drama by several writers including Roger Ebert, and rightly so. It’s an investigative, procedural slow-burner about the Zodiac Killer, who had cast a cloud of terror over San Francisco in the 60s and 70s. Director David Fincher, with surgical accuracy, merges police work with journalism. We see the former’s protracted nature and the latter’s intellectual haughtiness. Just like his previous work Se7en, rife with violent Biblical imagery, Fincher decides to play up the performative work of the killer here too. And if not for the morbid ‘deep talk’, you can watch Zodiac for its stellar cast.
Available On: Netflix
Unbelievable was one of the finest series I had seen in 2019. I can still picture Toni Collette’s grit and Kaitlyn Dever’s heartbreaking psychological dissonance. Based on a 2015 article on a series of rapes that took place over four years in the US, the Netflix miniseries takes a look at the existential pain these serial crimes caused. Despite being padded with a lot of drama, the sexual violence depicted is gut-wrenching. The coldness does not spare viewers.
The Stoneman Murders (2009)
Available On: Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, and YouTube
Several thrillers play out like horror films — this one especially because it’s set so close to home, in 80s Bombay. What amplifies the horror is the nature of the crime — an unsolved mystery about the ‘Stoneman’ who was responsible for killing 13-26 street dwellers. Its cinematic rendition is far more chilling and eerie.
Available On: Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, and JioCinema
A good chunk of true-crime cinema concerning sports often sticks to the documentary style of filmmaking. Foxcatcher, defying its frequently used theatrical template, gives us a staged-but-harsh look at Olympic-scale wrestling. The film follows the murder of a Foxcatcher-trained wrestler, but is never entirely wrapped up in the crime. Instead, it focuses on the psychological turmoil that comes with the desire for victory; effectively juxtaposing virtue and vice.
When They See Us (2019)
Available On: Netflix
I had recommended this miniseries in another article on formative works by Black artists and creators that everyone must watch. It bears repeating. When They See Us is a captivating and depressing study of institutionalised racism — reminding us of how five Black teenagers were wrongfully incarcerated in the Central Park Jogger Case. Unlike most films and shows on the list, the victims in Ava DuVernay’s series are the ones behind bars. It’s an account of how racism colonises everyone, from the police to legal establishments.
Available On: Disney+ Hotstar, iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube
Based on the double homicide of a teenager and her domestic help in Noida, Talvar is an unsettling look at a dastardly murder. Borrowing from the style and sensibility of Rashomon (1950), and even whodunnits in general, Meghna Gulzar’s retelling of the event presents an extremely sour look at humanity. The procedural is never plodding and with Irrfan as the lead, we get a heightened sense of realism (despite the dry humour) through his jaded-yet-crafty character.
American Crime Story (2016 – Present)
Available On: Disney+ Hotstar and Netflix
American Crime Story’s anthology model explores a different crime every season, bring each one of them into sharper focus. The first season uncovered the ‘trial of the century’, the O. J. Simpson Murder Case. The second season, Gianni Versace’s killing. ACS essentially offers an assortment of high profile, widely publicised murder cases alongside some much-needed introspection on public voyeurism.
Black Friday (2004)
Available On: Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar
Black Friday, for a large part, reminded me of Spielberg’s Munich (2005), despite premiering a year before it. In Anurag Kashyap’s film, the police are looking for the perpetrators of the 1993 Mumbai bombings, and in Munich, the government is after those responsible for the massacre at the 1972 Olympics. Black Friday plunges into politics and history, and their violent qualities. Much like its Hollywood counterpart, it offers gritty look at how unscrupulous and messy police investigations can be.