Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cropsey

3/4

Not Rated (Probable R for Disturbing Violent Content and Some Language)

Are monsters real, or do we create them ourselves when the truth is too terrible to admit?

That's the question that documentary filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman seek to answer.  The crime, if there even is one, is horrific.  During the 70's and 80's, a slew of children went missing.  Only one of them was ever found again, but she had long since been dead and buried in the woods.  Many of them were patients at the notorious Willowbrook State School on Staten Island (it was the one famously exposed by Geraldo Rivera), and the one thing connecting them was a former orderly named Andre Rand.  But the evidence against him was circumstantial at best.

Brancaccio and Zeman ask whether the need for answers and closure can allow us to find answers where there are none.  I was reminded of the Joker's rationalization for his crimes in "The Dark Knight:" "You know what I've noticed?  Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan.'  Even if the plan is horrifying!  If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics because it's all 'part of the plan.'  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, then everyone loses their minds!"  That sentiment is at the heart of this film.  The crime of a serial killer preying on mentally disabled children is horrifying enough, but when there's no obvious culprit, it's terrifying.

Did Andre Rand kill any or all of these kids?  It's impossible to say.  Rand was a shifty character to be sure (his bizarre behavior did him no favors), but the evidence against him was, at best, flimsy, and at worst, absurd.  But the people of Staten Island needed a scapegoat, and he was a prime candidate.

However, such a question is beside the point.  "Cropsey" examines how a need for answers can pervert our justice system and our own values.  The horrifying nature of the crimes, Rand's history with Willowbrook, and other "evidence" led the populace to believe in wild conspiracy theories about Rand and the crimes he allegedly committed that involved everything from cults to devil worship.  Everyone had a different opinion on his guilt or innocence, and his motives.

It's a fascinating question that the filmmakers thoroughly examine. It would be stronger if the film were more focused.  The film feels like a stream of consciousness narrative, which can be effective if the ending isn't known.  And while the film deals with Rand's second trial for kidnapping, it's a minor aspect of the film.  A tighter focus and better organization would have helped immeasurably.

Still, this is provocative material, and it wisely leaves the answers up to the viewer to decide.  It's food for the mind with some chills sprinkled in.  There's also footage from Rivera's expose on Willobrook, which is stomach-churning).

"Cropsey" isn't for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it a chance, their time will be rewarded.  Especially if you have people to discuss it with afterwards.

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