In the ’60s director Joseph Strick achieved a certain notoriety adapting “unfilmable” literary works like “Ulysses” and “Tropic of Cancer” for the screen. Then and now, some observers admired his chutzpah more than the actual results. While very different from those features in all other respects, the new doc “Criminals” suffers from a similar disjunction between ambition and cogent directorial p.o.v.
Subject is as dauntingly broad as the title indicates: It’s “crime in America ,” pure and simple. But there’s nothing pure or simple about the roots and results of current U.S. criminal activities. Torn between straight-up reportage and commentary, film holds the attention even as it flounders in search of an all-bases-covered game plan. Superficially akin to TV’s tabloid-style “reality” programs, yet groping toward some less exploitative end, pic will prove a tough sell in both theatrical and broadcast markets.
Majority of footage is taken from district attorney interviews with offenders as they deny or confess to charges. Latter range from child molestation to rape and murder. We also get some harrowing (and, in one attempted convenience store holdup, bizarrely funny) surveillance camera shots of robberies, police-decoy apprehensions and slaying sites.
Strick suggests the pervasiveness of crime by showing priests (again caught by secret lens) pocketing dough from the donation box. But most crimes and criminals here are violent in nature. Two-dozen-odd perpetrators’ varied attitudes when they’re in custody — delusional, boastful, eerily detached — are chilling. Film ends with a scroll of their individual prison sentences.
Just what insight we’re meant to glean from all this is unclear. Strick doesn’t help matters much by giving film a “conscience” via poet C.K. Williams’ periodic narration, which decries “cities of greed,””writhing souls,””the lost children of the poor” and so forth. Read by actor Louise Smith, whose honey-toned news-announcer voice is strikingly inappropriate, to montages of madding-crowd faces, these segs play like well-intentioned but hapless public service announcements. Ironic use of music by Tchaikovsky, Sousa and others also tends to muffle overall impact.
Strick made “Criminals” in response to the murder of a friend by a serial killer. Its sincerity is evident, but tactical uncertainty leaves the film uneasily balancing shock value against moral and philosophical inquiry, with neither approach emerging a clear winner.
Blowup from vid to 35mm is pretty raw, which only enhances blunt power of “reality” materials.