Snipers, serial killers and the assassination of JFK. They affect our everyday mentality. Even Brenda Spencer, the young girl who didn’t like Mondays, became a song. This, kids, is director Sheldon Renan’s The Killing of America and is one of the most vital, sobering and fascinating documentaries on crime available. This is even more impressive when you consider that this is a reissue of a documentary that first came out in 1981, shown here at FrightFest for the first time on a UK cinema.
This documentary focuses on the ‘violence begets violence’ narrative, but because of the use of archive footage and despite its own retro status, it makes even these old news stories seem utterly up-to-date and prescient. Indeed, sometimes it is only by having footage of the killings as they happened that you can begin to realise just how much impact violence has on the everyday viewer. Citizenship is knowing and bearing witness to murder even if it is behind a glass screen. The media reaction to the dissection of celebrity President Kennedy’s image speaks volumes about how we react in awe and disbelief to the possibility (and indeed absurd probability) of terrorism today. It is not only a movie.
Gore-wise, appropriate talking heads are edited in between crime scene footage with no comfort given to our current ‘trigger warning’ culture. You see death here. It preserves the sobering and ghastly impact as a result. At the same time, however, the narrative manages to avoid the dirty feeling that clings after watching some documentaries on well-known channels. The Killing of America feels confidently (but confusedly) complicit rather than purely voyeuristic as the voice-over is old-style rather than cackling. It catches us in the moment where we genuinely thought of America as a pinnacle of the young-bold and that it really could be the land of the free rather than the land that feared. It reminds us not so much of what (who?) we have lost, but of the naiveté that withered away since mass media showed us ourselves warts and all and we decided superhero films were a good sticking plaster. Quite simply, if you like the idea of living, the way the statistics on gun ownership in America alone are given will make you soil your underwear (bearing in mind this documentary was initially released over 30 years ago).
After a while it becomes a litany of familiar headliners, but that’s partly the point: a catalogue of killing should lose its glamour but it doesn’t because we are, by fault of nature, rubberneckers.The Killing of America manages to be harrowing today as its stark warnings have gone unheeded. The killers it showcases have gone on to become pop culture and the editing of them alongside scenes of violence truly cuts to the quick.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: SHELDON RENAN / SCREENPLAY: LEONARD SCHRADER, CHIEKO SCHRADER / STARRING: CHUCK RILEY / RELEASE DATE: TBC