Treat Williams is effectively enigmatic as the egotistical Michael Peterson, an acclaimed novelist on trial for the murder of his socialite wife in “The Staircase Murders,” an original pic for Lifetime. Add big money woes to the salacious combination of sex, lies and videotape and you’ve got solid drama. Ultimately, however, the film never really takes a definitive stance on whether the truth has been served so much as it’s been skewered, flambeed and eventually overcooked.
Based on “The Perfect Husband,” by Aphrodite Jones, the movie takes a provocative look at the case as it plays out in court as well as within the Peterson family. The true-life details were sensational enough to inspire two novels, an eight-part Sundance Channel documentary as well as specials for “Dateline NBC” and Court TV, so the story certainly makes natural TV-movie fodder.
On paper, Peterson makes for an ideal husband and father and talented writer. A bestselling novelist and ex-Marine, Peterson lives in a swanky house in Durham, N.C., with his successful businesswoman wife Kathleen (Nina Jones) and their blended families.
In a frantic call late one December night in 2001, Peterson tells the police that his wife fell down the steps after a night of drinking. First on the scene is Det. Joe Castell (Brett Rice), who is immediately skeptical of Peterson’s story given the large quantity of blood at the crime scene. Conflicting opinions abound, but Castell makes no attempt to hide his suspicions or his disdain for Peterson, a former mayoral candidate and open critic of Durham’s police department. Regardless of all of the speculation, the family quickly rallies around Peterson, including Caitlin (Samaire Armstrong), Kathleen’s college-age daughter from a previous marriage. Michael had been a supportive father figure to her and shared her concerns over her mother’s drinking habits. As the police mount their case and decide to charge him, Peterson hires slick defense attorney David Rudolf (Kevin Pollak), who brings with him a documentary film crew with unlimited access to record the events.
As tales of financial troubles begin to surface along with evidence of Peterson’s bisexual affairs, Caitlin develops doubts about her stepfather. Her mother’s autopsy reveals disturbing evidence that contradicts Peterson’s account, and when it comes to light that an old family friend and mother of the two teenage girls in Peterson’s custody died in a remarkably similar staircase accident, Caitlin can’t help but suspect Peterson.
While emotions rage between Caitlin and the family, Pollak’s Rudolf is the surprising middle ground. He never seems to judge Peterson’s duplicitous life even as more startling evidence comes to light. Instead, one can practically see the gears shifting as he plans on how to spin it all to the jury.
In the meantime, Peterson seems to be doing his own spinning for the benefit of the cameras — pompously reciting Shakespeare passages, offering retakes and direction to an increasingly uneasy documentary crew. If Peterson isn’t a murderer, he is, at the very least, a master manipulator. His abject denial, even as his defense case seemingly falls apart, is a marvel. Williams, with his Cheshire smirk and oozing condescension, is one of the few actors who can pull off a scholarly dinnertime lecture rationalizing his bisexual affairs. He tells them in his best Andy Brown voice how sex between soldiers was often encouraged in ancient Greece to insure battlefield loyalty.
Williams and Pollak serve the pic well, elevating the movie from the usual Lifetime telepic sensibility, to which director Tom McLoughlin too often falls prey. He does however, give it his own distinct, horror-background touch with a couple of fade-to-deep-red commercial breaks and a particularly violent dream sequence featuring buckets of blood cascading down stairs. They’re unnecessary stunts considering it’s the repetitive shots of the boarded up crime scene that really illicit the chills.
Still, McLoughlin and writer Donald Martin do a nice job of slowly unfolding the sordid details of Peterson’s life to allow alternately for rationalizations and realizations.