A heart of darkness and humanity lies at the center of Macky Alston’s haunting doc “The Killer Within,” the morally fascinating and finally irresolvable tale of a good family man who once killed a man. As the pic moves from renowned environmental psychology expert Bob Bechtel’s present to his dark past, a gnawing concern grows that this man may never have fully faced up to his crime. No final verdicts come down, which is to the pic’s credit and allows it to be a potent discussion-starter sure to guarantee many fest dates before airings on the Discovery Channel.
First seen with his beloved wife, Bev, at home in Tucson, where he teaches at the U. of Arizona, Bechtel is the picture of personal and professional contentment. His daughter Carrah and stepdaughter Amanda adore him, though the latter appears most shaken when her father reveals he murdered fellow Swarthmore College student Holmes Strozier in 1955.
Alston never explains what spurred Bechtel to announce his secret at this time (only Bev had been previously informed). Reactions from loved ones and colleagues, captured onscreen by Alston’s on-the-spot camera (lensed by Dyanna Taylor), are generally supportive, only one indicator of the respect and love Bechtel has been able to draw upon for decades. It’s nevertheless remarkable, given that Bechtel explains his violent act was a response to constant bullying — precisely the scenario motivating the student killers at Columbine and many others since.
Strozier’s surviving brother, John, naturally takes a dimmer view of Bechtel, insisting Holmes wasn’t a bully while struggling with the fact that his parents forgave Bechtel in a written letter soon after his arrest. A range of Swarthmore alums who knew Bechtel and Holmes back up John’s claim. (Alston’s dramatic re-creations of Bechtel being bullied and the crime itself momentarily push the pic into conventional tube fodder.)
What sets “The Killer Within” apart is its consideration of how American society has grown harder and less tolerant in its treatment of murder suspects and convicted killers since the 1950s, as well as how it observes the daughters trying to come to terms with a father they thought they knew.
Former theme turns several cultural stereotypes on their head, including the myth that the country was less liberal in the era of Ike and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Pic hardly needs to point out that the Bechtel who was sent to a lockdown mental hospital in the mid-’50s would have been condemned to death row in the new century.
Emotions in the final section peak when the family visits the Pennsylvania institution where Bechtel was incarcerated, and when Carrah and Amanda visit Holmes’ grave. An open ending, teetering between renewed family faith and lingering doubt, leaves the pic with an interesting question mark rather than a period.
Closing credits are distinguished by an exceptionally beautiful Natalie Merchant cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” capping a doc whose look and sound is well above cable standards.