In January 2010, a 27 year-old woman by the name of Jessica Lloyd went missing from her home in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans. Her disappearance was feared to be connected to other recent crimes in the area, a fear borne out when, barely 10 days later, investigators were directed to Lloyd’s body by her self-confessed killer. The case is exactly the kind of thing the recently resurgent true-crime category thrives on and indeed there’s a 2012 Lifetime movie about it, and one of the surviving victims even testified in a documentary TV series. But the awkwardly titled, simply presented yet eerily engrossing “Fatum: Room 216” deals less with the crime itself than with the mechanics of the interrogation that led to that confession. It is a procedural in which the careful, clever application of by-the-book procedure is the unlikeliest hero of all.
This modestly scaled doc is remarkable for all the ways it does not adhere to the often sensationalist true-crime template. Instead Dutch filmmaker Ramón Gieling delivers a formally precise, gripping portrait not only of that old staple, the banality of evil (for the killer does indeed seem deeply ordinary), but also of the banality of the justice system that on this occasion, in the deceptively diffident person of Detective Jim Smyth, worked so brilliantly to bring him down. It all happened in the course of a single 10-hour, one-on-one inteview, in which no voices were raised, no physical contact made, and which the interviewee was free to leave at any time.
The film’s most compelling element, therefore, is the interrogation footage, which exists as a fuzzy split-screen of interrogation room 216 shot from three different high angles (thereby also giving us a study in contrasting male pattern baldness). Gieling selects sections with care, always marking them with the time, so we can know exactly how long it took this respected, married military colonel, generously giving his Sunday over to helping the police with their missing-persons inquiry, to be talked into talking: 4 hours, 44 minutes.
The most evocative addition to this found footage is the music, composed by Paul M. van Brugge, which Gieling films being played by two musicians. At first, these interludes are hard to process, but gradually they become much-needed respites from the hesitant intensity of the interview, while also gently echoing the duet interplay in room 216. And the melody itself — a beautiful, atonal, asynchronous piece in which a violin chills and a cello mourns — pays subtle, sorrowful respects to the victims, though this is not their story.
There are further flourishes that vary in success: the furtive shots of empty houses and gardens also have their meaning revealed as the film progresses, but Gieling’s insertion of quotes from “The Song of Songs” feels wrongheaded, and a little pretentious. These quotes, which are all about the nature of passion and the beauty of the beloved to the lover, seem to be trying to add depth to the psychological profile of the killer, when frankly, his pathology is far from the film’s most interesting investigation. It’s how Smyth gets him there, and where he goes thereafter that truly compels.
The dynamics of the interrogation are simply riveting. Russell Williams is an inherently likable guy, while Smyth’s manner is never chummy, just unfailingly polite. He makes sure to issue a companionable chuckle or a disarming “uh-huh” whenever Williams seems to be opening up. Otherwise, Smyth comes over as a mid-level bureaucrat with a manila folder, and a tendency to repeat things pedantically. His bland affability undoubtedly accounts for why Williams keeps talking, yet the control it must take Smyth to keep his body language relaxed and open, his expression unflinching no matter what horrors are being related, is borderline superhuman.
Rather like in David Fincher’s recent TV series “Mindhunter,” the moral question arises, “How can you talk to a monster like he is a man?” And here the answer is: “You do it when you have to.” It’s not comfortable to watch Smyth engage with Williams in such a personable way, but the haunting, absorbing “Fatum” understands the odd intimacy of this piece of superlative policework, in which there are no overturned tables, or games of “good cop, bad cop,” just two men talking in a room. There is evidence presented and hints are dropped, but it’s the relationship between them that really matters: The turning point comes when, having been addressed as “Russell” throughout, after a long, intense silence, Williams mumbles, “Call me Russ.”