Heavy research and the best of intentions are somewhat scuttled by a muddy constitution and an unclear sense of purpose in Charlie Minn’s “A Nightmare in Las Cruces,” which investigates a horrific unsolved massacre that took place in a New Mexico bowling alley. This at-times wrenching docu should hit hard for New Mexicans and others who remember the 20-year-old tragedy, though its budgetary constraints may limit appeal elsewhere. Pic is playing scattered theatrical dates.
Film recounts in extensive detail the early morning shooting of seven people (four of whom died) at the Las Cruces Bowl in 1990. The victims — all employees and children of employees, including two extremely young girls — were shot execution-style as they lay on the ground; the two assailants then fled with a small amount of money (they neglected to even completely empty the safe). A 12-year-old girl, shot in the head, somehow managed to call 911 and save her own life, as well as those of two others.
The details of the incident are horrifying in the way utterly inexplicable cruelty is always horrifying, and interviews with two of the survivors and the victim’s relatives are predictably difficult to watch. Yet at times, one wonders if there’s ample reason for dredging up such horrible memories.The director’s motives for releasing this film are clear: to help apprehend the still-at-large killers. But due to scant recent info on the case, he can provide few helpful details other than a 20-year-old police sketch of the assailants, as well as some circumstantial suspicions about the now long-dead bowling alley proprietor. Though there’s some mention of the shock the modest city felt after the massacre, the film makes little attempt to explain the lasting legacy of the crime; nor does it probe the survivors for anything other than expressions of grief. With the case as cold as it is, Minn’s activist zeal feels both noble and somewhat futile.
Pic occasionally shows lapses in taste, as actual crime-scene photos of the dead little girls are seen repeatedly. To show them once is defensible, in that it stresses the barbarity of what happened, but to show them over and over feels upsetting for its own sake.
An overbearing ambient score, which often sounds like a broken subwoofer, hovers distractingly over many of the interviews, and the film feels overlong in places (including an entire three-minute newscast on the making of the docu toward the pic’s end). Research was clearly extensive, however, and the film boasts vast amounts of archival footage and police video.