A Life With Murder (2010) dir. John Kastner
By Alan Bacchus
A number of great documentaries have been about true crime, and the conflicts facing the Jenkins’ family do not get more complex and fascinating than this.
Ten years ago humble suburban parents of two, Brian and Leslie Jenkins suffered the worst possible crime. In the middle of the afternoon, their teenaged daughter Jennifer was found shot, lying dead by multiple bullet wounds in the basement of their own home – a home invasion perhaps? Armed robbery? After a detailed investigation Jenkins’ son and Jennifer's older brother Mason was arrested and convicted for the murder.
Ten years later, Mason still pleads his innocence and hs parents continue to believe him despite being ostracized and shunned by mostly everyone in their community. Now, Mason is granted visitation rights which means the family can be reunited in a domesticated (though monitored) prison setting just like 'old times'.
Like some of the best true crime documentaries, ‘Dear Zachary’, ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘Paradise Lost,’ Kastner parses out his information carefully. Mason comes off as a normal guy – by our first impression we’re actually shocked that he could even be accused of murder. But with the overwhelming evidence stacked up against him, the idea of the trying to have a regular conversation with niceties and pleasantries knowing they're talking to the convicted murderer of their daughter is frightening.
Intercut with the present Kastner goes back to retrace the steps of the case and with Mason’s parents reliving the grisly details of the murder. Kastner even gets his hands on the police interrogation tapes of Mason and his parents being questioned mere days after the murder. The energy and emotional reactions expressed are astoundingly raw, a rare omniscient glimpse into the reactions of people to such heinous tragedy.
As we learn more about the case and see how guilty Mason looks, Kastner puts lays out this earth-shattering conundrum right in front of his parents to face.
Their reactions are not as one would think, and with a twist not even the most melodramatic mystery novel plotting could make believable. It’s a head scratching decision these normal people are forced to make? Disown their own son and thus completely destroy what’s left of their family, or perhaps forgive and try to find some semblance of a functional life together. After all, we have only one life on this earth and their choice remarkably allows them to maintain their sanity, their family, however sorrowful and tragic, and most of important of all, inner peace.
“A Life With Murder” is currently playing at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto