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Recovered Memories

An HBO docuseries explores the fallout from a 1985 murder in Beatrice, Nebraska that still haunts a small community.

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Are you a fan of murder mystery shows? You know, those dark crime TV documentaries where you get sucked into the disturbing, real-life details of a memorable case and then spend the rest of the time playing detective, racking your brain to figure out who did it and when the hidden twist will arrive?

The kind of show where someone on your couch might ask, quite reasonably, “Really? Another show where a woman gets killed by some sick, damaged guy?” And you have to admit, “Yes, the violence and evil is sickening and mostly perpetrated by men.” Your only defense: Unlike most TV shows, good crime docs require at least minimal use of your brain. And really good ones often impart some insight into the human condition – the good, the bad and the truly strange -- while featuring memorable characters you’d be lucky to find in most fiction. In other words, you can’t get lost on your phone or laptop while watching a good murder mystery show. The little details actually matter.

The bizarre details are what make the new six-part crime documentary series on HBO, “Mind Over Murder,” directed by Nanfu Wang (“In The Same Breath”), one of the strangest rollercoaster rides of the year. There are plenty of twists and turns that should keep the viewer absorbed and guessing deep into the series, which has a lot to do with how Wang selectively and methodically reveals the information. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here that aren’t in the trailer. But one temptation I’d advise against: Don’t get lazy and Google the crime. It’s more enjoyable to watch each episode slowly unfold, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. The one-hour episodes air on Monday nights at 10 p.m. and HBO has already run two of them, now available for streaming on HBO Max.

“Mind Over Murder” chronicles a psychologically complex story of six individuals convicted for the brutal murder of a beloved, 68-year-old grandmother, Helen Wilson, in her apartment one frigid night in Beatrice, Nebraska in 1985. From the beginning, there is something off about the story. We learn early on that, even though five of the six convicted individuals confessed to the crime and provided critical details, their prison time was cut short after DNA evidence exonerated them in 2009. Or did it? For some in the community, the answer remains no.

The small rural town of Beatrice is populated with mildly quirky, salt-of-the earth folks. You've got a blow-hard, retired local cop who comes off a little full of himself, as if he's watched the Chuck Norris movie “Lone Wolf McQuade” one too many times. There’s the one sketchy biker bar downtown where most of the troublemakers hang out and drink before … getting into trouble, what else? It’s also the kind of small town that doesn’t deal with murder often – and the details of this particularly horrific crime linger in the public consciousness.

So what do you do when a crime is like an open, gaping wound that won't heal? Here, the filmmakers employ an interesting framing device where the townspeople of Beatrice are filmed as they work on a small community play about the murder. So as the director is introducing us to the many facts of the case, told through archival documents and interviews with the people involved – mostly police, attorneys and the accused – the viewer also watches amateur actors auditioning as those same individuals. This provides a weirdly clinical echo effect as the eager actors read the actual dialogue from the case. Sometimes it can feel like tone-deaf comedic relief (like when the actors debate whether to use a slang term for sodomy). But nothing about this case is funny.

However, having local actors portray “the Beatrice Six” as they were called, forces them to reconsider these individuals as human beings, which leads to reexamining their own biases. So in a way, the locals are stand-ins for the audience as they both try to figure out nagging questions like: Why would an entire group of people admit to a horrific crime they didn’t commit?

I had mixed feelings about this approach: On one hand, it's an interesting creative exercise, but it also had me wondering how much the filmmakers constructed the device to their own narrative ends? As with some advocacy journalists who might inject themselves into stories not out of obligation to any objective truth, but to grow personal brands or be recognized as saviors (or healers, in this case), one may wonder about their self-policed integrity. Nobody wants to face the stern judgment of the Twitterverse for being insensitive in the pursuit of knowledge, or not proactively biased enough. For many, every public act or artistic decision must be managed with an eye on PR blowback or social media temperature. I'm not convinced this is a good thing for art. I wondered how many locals in the play were interested in helping their town heal and move on, as opposed to just answering the filmmakers' call to be on HBO?

The actual details of the crime are so heinous that I won’t mention them – be forewarned though, they are graphic and gut wrenching. Regarding the emotional fallout, the filmmakers do a decent job of not losing track of the victim’s family. But sadly, the twists and turns that make this case so compelling for the viewer, can only be described as drawn-out, emotional torture for the family. Yet they agreed to be involved, and their own interviews provide a tragic, regretful core for the series as they try to salvage the fading memory of their grandmother from this seedy, sordid affair that can’t find closure.

There’s also the question of justice for the wrongly convicted, or those whose lives were destroyed by association. Like many of the better crime documentaries, this one doesn’t offer easy solutions. There are well-placed revelations that are difficult, if not impossible, to see coming (my favorite kind). Kudos to the director for not being obvious through dark soundtrack cues, lingering close-ups, or whatever dead giveaways might allow us to notice the sound of slithering in the grass beneath us. Villains – if you even want to use that term – are not so easy to discern here, which makes them all the more frightening.

The bizarre scandal at the heart of this case underscores just how vastly different solving murders was before the use of DNA technology. But some things still haven’t changed: Our justice system can be fallible in strange, unpredictable ways, and the same goes with human memory. But it’s worth peeling back the onion, especially in a small-town bureaucracy, and being reminded that for justice to be carried out, so many different elements need to go right. Checks and balances are usually a good thing.

That is, until investigators are replaced by Robocops, then we've likely got a whole other set of problems.

“Mind Over Murder” airs on HBO and HBO Max on Monday nights at 10 p.m. and HBO has already run two episodes, which are available for streaming on HBO Max. Four more to go.

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