Sydney Film Festival Review: Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (USA, 2017) is more than just the making of two murderers

In a small town in Kansas the residents kept their doors locked until the day a brutal, quadruple murder rocked the neighbourhood. The scene is a tragic and hard one to fathom but in a complicated turn of events these also became famous thanks to the writer, Truman Capote and his seminal book. Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is a documentary that chronicles the other side of the story. It gives a more balanced and humane view of the victims and is a searing and complete commentary on the killers. It’s hard to look away but utterly compelling.

Herb Clutter was a farmer and a well-respected Methodist. A father of four, he lived with his wife, Bonnie-Mae and two teenage children in Holcomb. On 15 November 1959 the family were paid a visit by two violent criminals, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The men were under the misapprehension that the family had a safe containing thousands of dollars. They thought they could rob the place and get rich quick.

The night proved to be a devastating one. There was no safe and there was less than $100 in the house. The pair robbed the family and then got into a fight because Hickock wanted to rape the Clutter’s daughter, Nancy. The criminals feared they would get caught by the police as the Clutters were now witnesses to their crime. Smith decided to shoot all four family members in cold blood at point blank range.

Enter Truman Capote. He and his friend, Harper Lee (who would go on to have fame with To Kill A Mockingbird) travelled to Kansas and ingratiated themselves to Holcomb’s residents. Capote would get to know the killers over several years as the investigation and trial took place. In Cold Blood was eventually released in 1966 to critical acclaim and marked the birth of the true crime genre. The book would also be the breaking of Capote; exacerbating his inner demons to the point where his drinking increased and leaving him never to finish another book.

This documentary by true crime master, Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost) corrects some of the wrongs made by Capote in In Cold Blood. Capote was influenced by his friendship with Smith and humanised the killers in his work. Berlinger on the other hand looks at the story from the perspective of the Clutters. He interviews surviving family members and their friends. Herb Clutter’s niece reads aloud from her memoirs. Rare photographs and never-before-seen videos of the family are included. This work is meticulously researched and so detailed that you are left with a sense that the four Clutters were so much more than mere victims.

The killers don’t get off lightly here. The audience also learns more about their back-stories. There is an interview with Smith’s army buddy as well as recordings from when the two were interviewed by the police. The pair’s difficult family lives are also examined. This produces a more detailed tapestry of information. It also proves that there was always much more to this tale than the sensationalist media reports and Capote’s tome.

Cold Blooded is a fascinating documentary that poses and answers a lot of questions about crime, punishment and morality. It shows how challenging the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee can become. This documentary is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one because the senselessness of these crimes are like a searing hurt on society’s souls and a reminder that tragedies can even shake the good fellas.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Cold Blooded is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival. For tickets and more details head HERE.