“We forgot how to pray… Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we couldn’t remember the order anymore… we couldn’t get past trespasses…” —Diana Edwards, niece of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter
Maybe when we talk about murder we get really wrapped up in (sometimes) the victim or (more often) the killer. Countless TV shows track real and imagined murderers, single-offenders, serial killers, cult killers, psychopaths who develop a fascination with the cop tracking them down and passion-criminals who were pushed by circumstance into something they never imagined they’d have it in them to do.
We spend a lot less time with the scarred, bereft civilians who are left behind.
So much of the infamous Clutter murders inflamed the imaginations of people at the time and continues to do so today. This weekend, Sundance has a four-hour documentary event that takes us back into the lives of the Herbert Clutter family, the two men who killed them, and the writer who turned their story into the bestseller In Cold Blood, which basically invented the “true crime” genre and not coincidentally turned 50 recently.
So much about this scrupulously researched and incredibly detailed documentary is captivating. If I have a complaint, it’s that the kaleidoscopic directorial style, going from past to present, past to deeper past, from the trajectory of the killers to the history to the family to the small Kansas town’s reaction to the appearance of Truman Capote and Harper Lee, can be slightly disorienting. Do not let this stop you; it’s a totally fascinating documentary that uses its lavish four-hour time horizon to dig deep into the lives of the victims, the perpetrators, and the people left behind.
Descendants of the extended Clutter family were reluctant to participate, and children of the eldest daughters, who were not living in the family home at the time of the murders, only spoke on condition of anonymity. It seems clear that a lot of the family and the people who knew them didn’t feel Capote represented the situation fairly and ultimately felt this documentary might be a chance for a more fully fleshed-out vision of the family and how this tragedy affected and continues to affect them.
An absolutely amazing amount of archival footage and imagery is interspersed with a small, well-rendered bit of as-needed dramatization. There are multitudes of interviews with still-living friends and family, with some of the most striking comments coming from Herbert Clutter’s niece, Diana Edwards, who reads most of her remarks from a manuscript of what appears to be a memoir. Let me just say right now there is something to be said for scripted comments. Edwards, perhaps more than any single person interviewed, gets at the heart of the situation and she does it in a way that’s at once humble and searing. Five decades later, you still feel the rawness of the wound left both by the killing of her family members and the sensationalizing of the crimes at the hands of Truman Capote. She describes her cousin Beverly’s wedding, which took place four days after the murders (ahead of schedule, because the family was gathering in Holcolmb, Kansas for the funerals) as “a fairytale… in the middle of a nightmare” and expresses disdain for the way it was portrayed in the novel. She’d been close to her cousin Nancy, one of the Clutter children who died that night, and describes her discomfort with the “efficient, well-intended aunts” going through her cousin’s things, saying it seemed clear to her that they should have left the house alone.
The murders changed life in rural, agrarian Kansas forever, and they continue to fascinate us, but there was a flipside to Captote’s desire to present the killers as three-dimensional people with their own stories, especially coupled with his decision not to honor his promise to give the family a chance to review his work before he published.
This documentary does what In Cold Blood didn’t or couldn’t do. It presents a genuinely journalistic and very 360-degree look at a crime that shattered a small town, gives equal weight to a panoply of perspectives, and honors the legacy of a family without either glamorizing or dehumanizing the men who shot them for a safe full of money that as it turned out didn’t even exist. It’s a stunning panorama that knows it doesn’t need to “novelize” a damn thing: The Clutter murders were the beginning of an ongoing American obsession with “true crime” stories. Now the family and friends of the people whose lives were lost are speaking out about what they experienced in the wake of that horror, and the four hours of footage are a lot like seeing a very intricate jigsaw puzzle being put together. Respectfully rendered and rich with detail, this two-part documentary event is a must for anyone who wants a deeper look at what happens in the wake of a senseless violent death, especially when the victim or victims catch the eyes of the media.
And Diana Edwards, if by any chance you are reading this, your manuscript is a thing of beauty and the naked honesty of your testimony is, I think, what glues this mosaic together. Please never stop writing.
Cold-Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders premieres Saturday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on SundanceTV.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.