I’ll Be Gone in the Dark review: HBO’s monumental series is a treat for true crime fans
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Directors - Liz Garbus, Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane & Josh Koury
Narrator - Amy Ryan
Don’t make the story about yourself. That’s one of the basic tenets of journalism, taught in school to every student of the vocation. A journalist must remain objective. A journalist must never let personal biases influence their storytelling. Whether or not this advice is followed is a discussion for another time.
For about an episode and a half, I wasn’t sure if HBO’s new documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is particularly journalistic. All it seemed to be doing was making the story about the storyteller — a true crime writer named Michelle McNamara who, from behind her laptop, conducted a sprawling investigation into a series of rapes and murders that rocked California for over a decade in the 70s and 80s. She gained a solid reputation on the internet, fuelled by her desire to uncover the identity of the culprit, upon whom she’d bestowed the title Golden State Killer — a man she believed was still at large.
Watch the I’ll Be Gone in the Dark trailer here
Even after a couple of episodes, I was wondering if it was a wise decision on the filmmakers’ part to focus just as much on McNamara as her dogged detective work. Perhaps it was the fault of how we, fans of true crime, have been conditioned. Making a Murderer, a recent benchmark for the genre, had taken a completely different approach — it was cool and clinical, staunch in its reliance on facts over any sort of emotional manipulation. In fact, it didn’t even have any voiceovers, a staple of the documentary format.
But once again, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark rejected rigidity. Not only does it make liberal use of voiceovers through its historic six-episode run, the filmmakers — led by Oscar-nominee Liz Garbus — got Amy Ryan to perform them. And what a fine job Ryan does, bringing to McNamara’s empathetic writing an undercurrent of quiet rage.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not merely a true crime documentary. Those are a dime a dozen. It is a living, breathing tribute to one woman’s quest to do right for several women who had something very wrong done to them. McNamara wasn’t driven by a desire for personal glory. “She was much more interested in other people than talking about herself,” one person says. She worked day and night, following clues and navigating red herrings, sacrificing sleep and sanity, with just one goal: to catch the Golden State Killer.
In the end, it killed her. In 2016, Michelle McNamara accidentally overdosed on prescription medication, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript and a devastated family. Her husband, the famous comedian Patton Oswalt, features prominently in the show, which often resembles a poetic postscript to their journey — a final farewell.
It also features several survivors, who recount in great detail the ordeals they were forced to endure. The show is also a testament to their strength. Garbus’ recreations aren’t gratuitous, but almost respectful. Not once is an act of violence shown — but the trail of horror that the Golden State Killer left behind is felt through the words of the people his actions impacted. It was a different time, back then, one of the women who lived to tell her tale recalls in the show. In the 70s, the punishment for rape was about the same as burglary. A major reason for why the killer wasn’t caught during the peak of his spree, a female detective reasons, was because most of his victims were women.
Instead, rattled communities back then stocked up on padlocks and issued stern warnings to the women of the house -- don’t go out at night, dress modestly, etc. And this, to those who’ve ever doubted the importance of women telling women-centric stories, is one of the reasons why I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is such a proudly feminist story. Left in the hands of men, the genre has, for the longest time, revelled in sophisticated sleaze. The last time a female filmmaker attempted a true crime tale with such confidence, Charlize Theron won an Oscar and the world was introduced to the power of Patty Jenkins.
In its empowering final moments, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark transcends whatever preconceived notions one might have had about stories such as this, and journalism itself. As the mournful voices of Angus & Julia Stone play us out, the barriers break. The storyteller and the story embrace, inseparable as they are, and always were.