True-Crime Documentaries That Tell More About Us Than the Victims

Remember the old “Arrested Development” axiom that “there’s always money in the banana stand”? For streamers, that banana stand is true crime, judging from the rate at which these movies are turned out. Many of the lurid tales of kidnapping, murder and stolen identities have been covered already in podcasts, but documentaries add tantalizing visual elements — photographs of the deceased, talking-head interviews, archival footage — that apparently keep fans coming back.

Of course, as entertainment goes, this is nothing new. Flicking through cable stations years ago would reveal plenty of documentaries and docudramas that retold similar tales. What’s changed is how bingeable they are — you can listen to endless podcasts and watch endless streaming shows, one after the other — and, perhaps as significantly, how the anonymity of the internet has become a key feature of both the crime and the investigation.

Two of this week’s new releases fit this mold, and also indicate the quality range of these kinds of films, from passable to genuinely revelatory. (Both, incidentally, have already gotten the podcast treatment at least once.)

On the lesser end is the Netflix documentary Lover, Stalker, Killer,” directed by Sam Hobkinson, which recounts the ordeal that a man named Dave Kroupa went through when he started receiving strange, menacing messages from an ex-girlfriend he met through dating apps. The tale is mildly twisty, and Kroupa and several others participate in the documentary, which makes it watchable. But the major turn happens far from the end of the film, and it’s hard to maintain tension after that. Most of the filmmaking feels perfunctory, too. Yet, as our critic Glenn Kenny put it in his review, “By now these are accepted conventions, so there’s little point in complaining.”

My expectations weren’t all that high for the Max documentary They Called Him Mostly Harmless,” directed by Patricia E. Gillespie, about a dead hiker found in Florida’s Big Cypress Natural Preserve. He was emaciated and had no identification on him but, curiously, did have food and cash. Trying to identify his body, law enforcement found itself at a standstill, with no idea who he was.

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