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Film Review: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (HBO)

Michael J. Nagle

Michelle McNamara, Author (left) and Joseph James DeAngelo (right), convicted serial rapist and murderer

This week, HBO premiered a new installment in their documentary series, “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”. The docu-series is based on the work of writer, Michelle McNamara who tragically died while researching serial murder and rapist, Joseph James DeAngelo. DeAngelo was better known as the Golden State Killer until his identity was discovered and he was subsequently arrested in April 2018. That came a full two years after McNamara died of an accidental overdose.

HBO debuted, “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” in June 2020. The series included footage and references to DeAngelo’s arrest but the story wasn’t as neatly tied up as it is in this “bonus” episode.

Footage of the now aged DeAngelo shows an old man shuffling while walking from the police van into the courthouse to listen to victim statements. His look of bewilderment seems apparent as his mouth hangs open in the middle of his unshaven face. His voice when addressing the court is barely a high-pitched mumble. That footage is followed by security camera footage of DeAngelo’s jail cell. There he meticulously stages his new living quarters by cleaning the floor and climbing on furniture in order to drape cloth over his lights. His chatter while talking to himself is far stronger than his speech in the courtroom. The director intercuts this footage with crime scene video from DeAngelo’s killing spree where cloth is similarly draped over a lamp apparently to mute the lighting decades earlier as well. The editing and juxtaposition is so subtle that is screams loudly to anyone watching who is paying attention. Calling DeAngelo a sociopath almost excuses his rage-induced rape and killing spree. Here it is apparent that he is a calculated and methodical serial killer and manipulator.

Much of “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” is guided by the narration of actress, Amy Ryan. Some footage contains actual audio and video of McNamara. While the docu-series centers around a serial rapist and killer, it also focuses on the impact of the case on the victims still here to tell their stories and also those who lost their lives at the hands of DeAngelo. McNamara herself may be considered among the victims. Her accidental overdose came while she was researching the case for the book on which the docu-series is based. Ryan does an outstanding job speaking for McNamara. Her work here ranges from depicting McNamara’s exhaustion, mania, dry sense of humor and compassion for those affected by the case. McNamara’s widow, comedian Patton Oswalt, helped to complete the book and docu-series but largely remains in the background. Like many of DeAngelo’s surviving victims, Oswalt is a witness to the damage caused. Victims of DeAngelo detail not only the crimes that impacted them but also their struggles and triumphs during their ongoing healing process. No details are spared and nothing is glossed over.

“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” manages to tell a very complicated story in remarkable detail without getting longwinded. Crime scene footage and photos are shown in abundance and somehow, avoid feeling exploitative. They’re vital ingredients to the stories of those involved. They’re also vital to shedding light on the brutality of DeAngelo. His calculated staging of scenes and efforts to gain control of his victims, neighbors and sentencing endured until the credits roll at the end of this docu-series. One victim crinkles up a sheet of paper while addressing DeAngelo and the court and demonstrates that despite her efforts to smooth that sheet of paper, it is never the same as it was before it was damaged. Her serenity and restraint betray the lifetime of suffering she’s endured since she was assaulted.

Director Elizabeth Wolff does a masterful job at concluding this installment coherently and without sparing details. Liz Garbus deserves equal acknowledgment for directing the six episodes preceding this update.

True crime series are all the rage now and they draw eyeballs in every form of media. HBO manages to rewrite the book in “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” that McNamara herself should have had a bigger hand in completing. Almost 40 years after his last known crime, DeAngelo is no less the rapist and murderer he was after he assaulted his very first victim. His age is merely another disguise he’s using to avoid identification and responsibility. Equally, his victims are as affected today as they were after he scarred them.

Watch “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO or on HBOMax.