Mind Over Murder Review: Contrary to other documentary genres, the true-crime genre is intrinsically cynical due to its dependence on untrustworthy talking heads and the implausible surprises it joyfully drops on the audience. It’s challenging to approach them without some jadedness given their recent profusion—some of which rely on the sensationalization of their subject, while others are shoddily based on conspiracy theories.
Leave it to renowned filmmaker Nanfu Wang to restore the genre’s accuracy and rigour. “Mind Over Murder,” her new six-part HBO true-crime documentary series, is gripping and relentless.
However, unlike her earlier works, Wang does not construct this extensive docuseries. The director has always had a talent for probing Chinese political ideologies through her own life to insightful effect. She used her early observation of sex workers to explore sexual assault in “Hooligan Sparrow.”
She studied her recent parenthood and spoke with others who were directly impacted by the nation’s one-child policy for “One Child Nation.” These people included her own parents. The pandemic was transformed by propaganda from China and the US, as seen in “In the Same Breath.” But unlike her previous road trip movie “I Am Another You,” “Mind Over Murder” is a very American tale.
Wang portrays “Mind Over Murder” through a Frederick Wiseman lens to convey the tale of Helen Wilson’s slaying, which takes place in the sleepy midwestern town of Beatrice (pronounced Be-Ah-trice) in Nebraska. Wang is a tenacious, investigative filmmaker who never hesitates to examine every aspect. In “Mind Over Murder,” she somehow exhibits a sharper, more precise style than ever, notably in the strange way she can illustrate how powerful systems may oppress the weak.
Some truths hold true despite the questions it raises: Someone broke into Mrs. Wilson’s apartment in 1985 on a chilly winter night and overpowered her. Local police struggled to find any leads, so they went to science, an FBI profiler, even a psychic after tests revealed the murderer had non-secretion type B blood. And nothing happened. Burt Searcey, a retired police officer, decided to conduct a personal investigation.
He finally zeroed in on six suspects: James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, and Debra Shelden, all of whom he thought conspired to rob Mrs. Wilson. The sextet, commonly known as the “Beatrice Six,” were found guilty and then cleared of all charges 30 years later thanks to DNA evidence. However, there are still unanswered issues about their innocence, which has permanently changed their lives, left Mrs. Wilson’s family heartbroken and in limbo, and divided a tiny town.
Mind Over Murder Review
In the first two episodes of Wang’s documentary series, Searcey—a charismatic, media savvy good ‘ol boy with a white mop-top hairdo and current flower shop owner—reconstructs the incident and the accompanying inquiry. The second, which is presented in episodes three and four, focuses on the Beatrice Six in particular and includes interviews with Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden, James Dean, and Kathy Gonzalez regarding their trial and subsequent exoneration.
The legal flaws that resulted in the conviction of six innocent people are covered in detail in the final two parts of the series. The performers from the nearby community theatre who are putting up a play about the incident are interviewed at the conclusion of each episode. Wang expertly balances these challenging narrative elements, maintaining clarity even as the improbable plot becomes more complicated.
Similar to “In the Same Breath,” the director is very interested in the way authoritarian figures use theatre to build these tales and how they may be used to justify disaster. For example, Searcey’s grainy interrogation videos with the Beatrice Six resemble a shoddy, low-budget cop drama from the 1980s. But in every film, Searcey’s role as a law enforcement official forces these innocent, defenceless individuals to gradually confess and blame one another.
A quack police psychologist and Nebraska’s power-drunk district attorney are only too delighted to take advantage of these needy people even further. You can see right away that this trio only wants to see their version of the reality, no matter the repercussions.
This village still believes in the version of the mythology that has been proven true over the years. Similar to Wiseman in the documentary “Monrovia, Indiana,” which was similarly interested in the civic framework of a small Midwest hamlet, Wang assimilated herself into the community. She gets opinions on who is guilty or innocent from the neighbourhood barber and other locals.
They all spoke openly, demonstrating the trust the director established. The same is true of the neighbourhood theatre group, whose play might go horribly wrong but which is willing to meet on camera with characters they’ll be playing and talk about the process of inhabiting each one.
No horrifying visuals are withheld in “Mind Over Murder.” Mrs. Wilson’s frozen, dead body is seen in crime scene images, along with her death-grip hand that is still clutched in a long-ago battle and the flaps of her hair that protrude through the blanket that suffocated her. Wang and director Jarred Alterman’s evocative compositions also touch on something innately cinematic, for lack of a better description, about Mrs. Wilson’s building.
On a block of beige and grey structures, it is the lone red building. And it haunts more in each setting photo than in the previous one. With an ominous tune and a talking head who likens the locale to a Stephen King story, Wang pushes heavily into the horror genre.
But Wang never strays into exploitative territory. She doesn’t disregard Mrs. Wilson or exploit her memories for trivial amusement. She discusses each member of the Beatrice Six’s past, including talking to White’s mother and the trauma the accusers experienced, and in the process gives them a human face. Wang doesn’t investigate conspiracies.
She also knows when to intervene; many of her follow-ups are direct and prompt. You can tell that the filmmaker of this film has a wealth of experience tormenting dictatorial governments and isn’t intimidated by them.
You hardly notice the stability Wang exhibits in integrating the theatrical company into the overarching narrative because of the exquisite editing of the docuseries, which alternates between illuminating flashbacks, tasteful reenactments, and contemporary interviews. Wang provides us only the briefest of glimpses, and it’s not immediately evident how she will proceed to weave the drama until the very end. Wang isn’t just interested in remembering what happened.
She is enthralled by how art can compel the audience to experience reality. When she plays a preliminary clip of the documentary for Searcey, he plays with his phone instead of watching. Additionally, it happens as a result of the play’s intense emotional impact on the theatre group when they perform it.
The sensitive and intelligent director Wang doesn’t hesitate to get up close to capture the intimacy and the emotions. In “Mind Over Murder,” there are many surprising revelations, several subjects make puzzling admissions, and many more revelations that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief at the injustice being displayed.
Wang’s docuseries is significant, compelling, all-encompassing, and meaningful. A true-crime series should be all that “Mind Over Murder” is.