'Life with Murder'

A true-crime story so captivatingly weird you can overlook its often ham-handed execution.

A true-crime story so captivatingly weird you can overlook its often ham-handed execution, “Life With Murder” is an instant archetype — the story of a family both split and bound by violent murder in a manner that makes Cain and Abel seem like a campfire story. From helmer John Kastner’s head-on– interviews to Bruce Fowler’s forbidding score, docu seems custom-cut for cable outlets specializing in fact-based crime drama, although it’ll be a tough one to market without spoiling the very twists that make “Murder” seem closer to Greek tragedy than to tabloid TV.

In early 1998, 18-year-old Jennifer Jenkins was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in the basement of her family’s home in Chatham, an Ontario suburb across the water from Detroit. From the outset, suspicion fell on her brother, Mason, a habitual petty criminal who had just been released from jail. “Mason was tried and found guilty,” says mother Leslie Jenkins, who takes such pains not to say “Mason killed his sister” that anyone paying the least bit of attention will conclude that Mason did it, and that his mother knows it.

But the hows and whys are something else. There’s much, much more to the family story, and Kastner from the outset finds ways to tease out information in a way that maintains narrative momentum without giving away too much too soon. To his credit, the director knows what he’s got — subjects whose dynamic is so painful and awkward, and whose behavior is so charged with unspoken questions and horrifying realizations, that watching them is like witnessing a car wreck. And yet there are only so many facts in this case, and the way to them is paved with stagy re-enactments and an often tortured exercise in fact avoidance. Nevertheless, the parents, Brian and Leslie Jenkins, are unforgettable in how they cope with their loss, and with their son.

As this Canadian production finds its way toward Stateside audiences, a bit of the sensationalism is likely to get lost: As Leslie Jenkins says, there’s a murder a day in Detroit; in her hometown, murder, much less sororicide, almost never happens. (That this all occurred in Canada was presumably part of the motivation for making the movie.) But the Jenkinses themselves will be what holds the film together for most viewers: Brian, virtually wasting away before our eyes as he grasps Mason’s admissions; Leslie, who puts on a frighteningly stoical front in the face of horror; and Mason, a curiously dispassionate observer of his own tragedy, and ultimately a big, baby-faced mystery.

Production values are adequate.

Life With Murder

Canada

Production

A J.S. Kastner Prods. presentation in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, in association with CTV. Produced by John Kastner, Silva Basmajian. Executive producer, Basmajian. Co-producer, Deborah Park. Directed, written by John Kastner.

Crew

Camera (color, DigiBeta, HD), Mark Caswell, John Westheuser; editor, Greg West; music, Bruce Fowler; sound, Douglas Kaye; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Stephen Barden. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), June 20, 2010. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Mason Jenkins, Brian Jenkins, Leslie Jenkins, George Vieira, Cathy Belanger.

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