CRIME CULTURE: Hollywood’s True Crime Obsession Stranger Than Fiction

CRIME CULTURE: True crime is not just a trend. It’s a key part of big entertainment, writes Joanna Psaros.

They say if you can’t be famous, be infamous. These days it’s hard to tell the difference, with true crime-inspired entertainment more popular than ever. But when does entertainment become exploitation – or worse, risk glamourising its subject? And what does it say about us as an audience that we can’t get enough?

The fictional depiction of real-life con artists, crooks, and killers is not a recent invention. In fact, the first ever feature film released in 1906 was called The History of the Kelly Gang. But if streaming habits are anything to go off, we may have reached peak true-crime obsession.

Inventing Anna, a stranger-than-fiction Netflix series about a high-society swindler, is currently the streaming giant’s most-watched program of 2022. Earlier this year, Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman had audiences captivated by the serial killing sex worker, and Hollywood A-listers Colin Firth and Zac Efron recently inhabited the roles of suspected murderer Michael Peterson and Ted Bundy respectively.

These are such fascinating characters, their crimes so irresistibly twisted, it’s easy to lose sight of the very real harm they caused very real people- some of whom are still suffering. Objectively despicable in real terms, on-screen they appear almost anti-heroes, often portrayed with greater depth and sympathy than their victims. (Try naming any of the men killed by Aileen ‘Monster’ Wuornos). 

Even portrayals that are unflattering can’t help but glamourise their subject to some extent. After all, if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that humans consider any form of attention better than none. It’s a Catch-22- the very existence of a film or series elevates the importance of its subject, validating their beliefs of being “different” and therefore entitled to their transgressions. (Plus, the even bigger validation of being played by a hottie like Zac Efron.) 

This was the problem facing Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel in writing Nitram, the bleak psychological drama about Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant. While debuting on Australian streaming platform Stan and a handful of theatres back in July 2021, the divisive film critics called both “intensely disquieting and extraordinary” and “exploitative burlesque” made fresh waves upon its US release only weeks ago.  

Following the shooter in the ten years leading up Port Arthur without depicting the event itself, Kurzel’s Martin Bryant skulks across the badlands of early-nineties Tasmania, peering through greasy locks with dead-eyed blankness at the town that ignores him and parents who’ve given up on him. He has no friends, job prospects, or hobbies other than an ominous obsession with fireworks, and is so intellectually “backward” his mocking classmates have started calling him “Nitram” (geddit?)

Causing controversy before it was even shot, former senator Stephen Parry was one of many Tasmanians who feared Nitram would reopen an impossibly painful wound. Arguing Kurzel’s film would cause distress, Parry said he understood the tragedy must be documented in some form, as long as “Martin Bryant is not glorified in any way, shape, or form”.

On one hand, Parry got his wish. Above all, “Nitram” comes across as a big, weird loser whose sad backstory invokes pity without sympathy. On the other? Viewers are made to sit through two long hours in the company of said weirdo to confirm just how unworthy of our time Bryant truly is. 

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Nitram is not the first film to bring real-life atrocities to the big screen. Director Gus Van Sant, for example, shocked with the 2003 Columbine-inspired Elephant. And we’ve already seen not one but two films about the far-right terror attacks that devastated Norway in 2011 (Utoya – July 22 and an American remake called 22 July).  

Then again, at least these real-life killers never cashed in on their infamy. Because while crime may not pay, true crime often does.     

Look at Michael Peterson. On the back of his hugely popular trial by podcast, the suspected wife-murderer has published two memoirs about his ill-fated marriage and (significantly abridged) time in prison. He claims they were used as source material for the Netflix adaption.

The Tinder Swindler is currently dating a twenty-four-year-old Israeli model and has plans for a book, podcast and reality show. And meanwhile, Joe Exotic has found Insta fame behind bars. The attempted murderer and self-appointed “Tiger King” regularly uses the platform to chat with his legions of fans. He had over 360,000 followers at last count.

Finally, there’s Jordan Belfort – the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, stripper-fucking stockbroker whose wild exploits inspired the Scorcese masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street. A true crime movie? Absolutely – in between boardroom orgies and little person tossing, Belfort committed a shitload of illegal activity. And not just the rad kind.

Belfort’s fraudulent lending scheme, which saw the Stratton Oakmont CEO pocket over $100 million, deliberately targeted vulnerable Americans who were manipulated into financial ruin. With many of these victims already middle class or poor, Belfort literally stole from those who had the least to lose. He has currently repaid less than 10% in compensation.  

As the film itself suggests, true crime icons like Belfort are what society makes them. The truth is, we don’t want to see the cheap, ugly mundanity of real crime. We prefer “true crime”- the sensational, stage-directed version that indulges our secret attraction to humanity’s dark side.

In this sense, maybe our true crime obsession has nothing to do with bringing offenders to justice. And maybe the real reason we glamourise criminal infamy is because deep down, a part of us admires it. As The Wolf himself says, “Not many can claim they were played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese film.”

Belfort made $940,000 selling movie rights to his story. In 2019, The Wolf of Wall Street was adapted for the live stage. And today, ordinary Americans queue up to hear the advice of failed businessman, ex-con, and abusive ex-husband Jordan Belfort at his lucrative motivational seminars.  

And that’s the real true crime.

About Joanna Psaros 4 Articles
Joanna Psaros is a Sydney-based freelance writer with a background in law. She has a master’s degree in law and international development and has written articles on everything from politics to pop culture for publications including Independent Australia, Green Left, and her own feminist blog Girls’ Locker Room Talk.

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