Friday, April 20, 2018

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Rating: TV-MA

Network: FX

Language: English

Episodes:  9

Cast: Darren Criss, Finn Wittrock, Penelope Cruz, Cody Fern, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Max Greenfield

Synopsis: Based on Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History, the season examines the July 1997 assassination of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) by sociopathic serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), who killed himself in a Miami Beach houseboat after a manhunt that lasted eight days

**spoilers included in review**

Reviewing a fictionalized account of real event is often much easier than reviewing a documentary or nonfiction novel. There is the fact that events will have been modified for dramatic purposes, and that this is simply a portrayal of the people involved, and not the actual person themselves that you are critiquing. I was eager to review the second season of American Crime Story as piece of entertainment media and not a reflection on the real life events that inspired it.

The first season of American Crime Story dived into the OJ Simpson trial and the media circus that surrounded it. It also offered commentary on how the events at the time fed into both the coverage, trial, and verdict. The second season was to look at the assassination of Gianni Versace. Those looking for a splashy, decadent look at the fashion designer ultimately found themselves with a story that was actually about Andrew Cunanan, the man who murdered five men on his cross country crime spree. They also found a story that had a lot to say about homophobia, and the pain that many gay men felt in that early to mid 90's time period.

The image of Antonio (Ricky Martin) being interviewed by detectives while still covered in the blood of who essentially was the love of his life is jarring. The needless, and insensitive, questions about their sex life, and accusatory tones are just the beginning of what is a theme of homophobia that this series leans into. A monologue by Max Greenfield's character Ronnie perfectly captures what this entire series is attempting to say about what it was like being gay in this particular time. When asked about Andrew and his hiding out in South Beach Ronnie is quick to point out that Andrew is not hiding. He also points out that it doesn't seem like the police were doing much to actually catch Andrew. The power of this monologue is best felt watching the delivery of these lines because Max Greenfield nails it. 
 'The truth is that you were disgusted by him long before he became disgusting. You're so used to us lurking in the shadows, and you know, most of us we oblige. People like me we, we just drift away. We get sick and nobody cares. But Andrew was vain. He wanted you to know about his pain. He wanted you to hear. He wanted you.... he wanted you to know about being born a lie. Andrew is not hiding.'
This story really is a commentary about the harm the closet can do to not only those who are forced to live in it, but those around them as well. 

The story device of telling the timeline of events in reverse chronological order is not only unique, but a perfect fit for the story being told. We begin with Gianni Versace's murder, and work backwards to Andrew's childhood. This allows the viewer to see Andrew at his worst, and slowly fill in the gaps of what his motivations might have been, and what might have led to these actions. It forces the viewer to grapple with a lot of their own emotions towards Andrew as the series unfolds. It's clever, and requires some thought by the audience to follow the timeline being presented. It also allows for the jarring impact of seeing someone brutally murdered and having them appear again in earlier, happier times later in the series. It makes their deaths hit a little harder, particularly in the cases of two of the victims.

Darren Criss gives a stunning, career altering performance as Andrew Cunanan. Every single note of his performance is pitch perfect. He captures the charming, slick side of Andrew as naturally as he exhibits the manipulative liar who would eventually become a murderer. I have no doubts that Darren's name will be tossed around plenty during television award season and with good reason. He steals the entire show, and the last few episodes in particular are a showcase of his talent. So many of Andrew's final moments were spent alone on a houseboat and Darren Criss manages to pull off what, I am sure, were difficult scenes perform. 

Cody Fern as David Madson is another revelation of this series. His version of David Madson is a wide eyed (almost unbearably so), charming architect. Cody plays him with a tenderness and kindness that radiates from the character. You can simply feel the goodness that David Madson had within him. His performance is the glue that holds episode four, "House By The Lake" together. It is the cornerstone of that episode and Cody manages to steal the spotlight from Darren Criss, even if just for a moment.

Finn Wittrock is always consistently good and he once again shines here as Jeffrey Trail. His portrayal of Jeffrey is nuanced, heartbreaking, and raw. You can feel the pain that Jeffrey felt as he grappled with who he was and what that meant for the Naval career he hoped to have. You could feel the desperation he felt, and the relief of the lifeline being offered to him when he first meets Andrew. All of the victim's stories are heartbreaking, but David and Jeffrey's sat with me the longest after watching this show. Not only were the two episodes dedicated to them some of the strongest of the series, but they captured the reality that these two men obviously meant something to Andrew. 

The episodes that are stands out for me are "House By The Lake", "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and "Alone". Each has a little something extra that resonated and stayed with me after I had finished the series. They are also some of the hardest episodes to watch. There is both a sadness and brutality to each of them, for different reasons. The show is almost reverential towards its victims, but it has a lot of sympathy for aspects of Andrew's life as well. It doesn't excuse his behaviour, and showcases him as the monster he was, but admits that there is something to be felt for the child he was and how that shaped the man he became. 

The scene in which Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan commits suicide is arresting for many reasons. The camera work here is remarkable in the way it shifts perspectives. It first has Andrew stare, almost fourth wall breakingly, at the audience (all while there is a gun in his mouth). This felt to me like our turn as a society to be judged for our role in the harm done to all of the gay men who felt they needed to stay in the closet (seems fitting after all the blame put on the police for their role in these events). We are judged, as I see it, for the role society played in creating someone like Andrew Cunanan and the media exploitation that happens in cases like this (and all for our consumption). Next the camera shifts and we see that Andrew is not looking at the audience, but rather a mirror, and it is his turn to judge himself for the horrific crimes he has committed. There is a layer of sympathy that filters these scenes even as you are entirely repulsed by everything Andrew did. It's a stellar piece of camera work and those images have stayed with me. 

This series is a beautifully shot, well written, stunningly acted look at one of the most talked about crimes in America. It, in my opinion, more than holds its own against the first season. It's a series with a definitive message to deliver and I think it succeeds in making the audience feel what they set out to invoke. It is, perhaps, a more fictionalized account than the first season was, but that can be forgiven because of the amount of details still unknown about this case. 

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