The Staircase

"Extraordinary"

The Staircase Review


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there are more than one case involving murdering men named Peterson. Scott and Laci were preceded by another Peterson surname, as Durham, NC writer Mike Peterson, who claims his wife slipped on the stairs and hit her head. The prosecution says he beat her to death -- and the massive head trauma and the wild amount of blood she is found in seems to indicate this is no ordinary fall.

Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade somehow gained complete and immediate access to the Peterson defense, following the trial every step of the way, starting with Peterson's arraignment. This six-hour, eight-part miniseries is now airing on the Sundance Channel.

What begins as an obvious accident quickly turns into a complicated mess. As the episodes progress, Peterson's story gets murkier and murkier, twisting our impression of Peterson's guilt back and forth, back and forth. At the end of episode one, Peterson is set up as clearly innocent. At the beginning of episode two, it's revealed that he is bisexual and has had numerous gay affairs during his marriage. By the end of the episode, we find out that Peterson has written several scathing editorials about the district attorney and his inability to fight crime, and could this case against Peterson be payback? And we've got six more episodes to go.

De Lestrade is best known for another legal documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning, which has a very similar feel to this film, but The Staircase is miles away an improvement in production and technical quality. Once again, the real story isn't the gory details of Peterson's tawdry private life but rather his insight into the real way criminal justice works -- with intricate jury analysis, trial runs of testimony in front of focus groups (which is then tweaked and tweaked again), and so much legal craziness that you'll soon agree the whole system is totally out of whack. It's also devastatingly insightful in showing how emotion, prejudice, and mass hysteria can sway not only your opinion, but your memory as well. The final episode contains enough horror and shock to send chills down your spine: It's got the feel of a taut legal drama, almost making you forget that this is not just a true story, it's a documentary.

Now, do we need six hours of this to make an impact? No, and The Staircase often feels like it's too self-conscious and simply too much, period. But is it a powerful and highly recommended work? Absolutely.

Now on DVD, the film includes a 2004 interview with Peterson -- explaining the aftermath -- plus insights from de Lestrade.

Aka Soupçons.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 94 mins

In Theaters: Sunday 12th April 1998

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

IMDB: 7.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Producer:

Starring: as Himself, as Herself

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