Murderous mystery in 'The Staircase'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 31, 2022
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Colin Firth and Toni Collette in 'The Staircase'
Colin Firth and Toni Collette in 'The Staircase'

"Innocent? Guilty? The Peterson ending will always be tragic," says a documentarian producer on the infamous fate of Michael Peterson, the novelist and political candidate convicted in 2003 of murdering his second wife Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their mansion, on December 9, 2001 in Durham, North Carolina.

His sensational case became the subject of the gripping French documentary series, "The Staircase" created by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, which started filming soon after his arrest in 2001, aired in 2004 on the Sundance Channel, and was periodically updated.

In 2017, when after a key prosecution witness was accused of giving misleading testimony, Peterson submitted an Alford plea (guilty because there is evidence to convict, but without formally admitting guilt) to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and freed. Debate has raged ever since about his guilt, although Peterson has always maintained his innocence.

Now HBO Max has produced a true-crime drama eight-episode mini-series on the Peterson case based on de Lestrade's docuseries. This version of the "Staircase" is riveting and brilliantly acted from start to finish. And if you haven't watched the docuseries, you can approach the material from a fresh, unbiased angle.

Gruesome details

Michael (Colin Firth) and Kathleen (Toni Collette) were carousing by their pool after dinner, drinking wine, when Kathleen went back inside their mansion. Michael claims he returned to the house a half hour later and found his wife at the bottom of the stairs, having taken a bloody fall, presumably unsteady after imbibing alcohol.

With Kathleen still breathing, he frantically called 911, but by the time the ambulance arrived she was dead. An autopsy revealed lacerations on Kathleen's scalp. Authorities concluded she may have been bludgeoned to death (police described it; "her head looked like it exploded"), so Peterson was charged with first-degree murder.

The series weaves in and out of various timelines, both the months before Kathleen's death through 2017 when Peterson gave his final plea, often juxtaposing incidents where characters exiting the front door will emerge in a different era in the next scene.

The series cleverly avoids replicating the docuseries by making its filmmaker characters act as "detached observers." However, "Staircase" also suggests how the camera influences when and how truth emerges, not to mention how their bias might shape the perspective of the final documentary.

Family angst
"Staircase" is as much family angst as it is true crime. Kathleen and Michael had five children, black sheep Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) from his previous marriage; the closeted lesbian Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) from her first marriage; and two daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young), adopted by Michael after the death of their birth parents.

Dane DeHaan and Colin Firth in 'The Staircase'  (Source: HBO)

The series follows the shifting allegiances of the kids, due to conflicting accounts and inconclusive evidence, with Caitlin joining Kathleen's sisters Candace (a raw Rosemarie DeWitt) and Lori (Maria Dizzia) who believe Michael was responsible for the death of their sister, particularly after they learn the similar circumstances that led to Peterson's first wife's death. What emerges is a dysfunctional family spun into turmoil by media speculation. We're a long way from the sunny "Brady Bunch."

For LGBTQ viewers, we learn Michael is bisexual. He watched gay porn on his computer and hired escorts with whom he had sex. For a long time Michael asserted Kathleen knew about his secret dalliances with men and was fine with it, but towards the end, he reveals he had lied and she never knew about that side of him.

Prosecutors will use this information to claim Peterson couldn't be trusted, believing Kathleen found the gay porn on his laptop, leading to a huge fight that resulted in Michael killing her. They exploit the biphobia of that era to create reasonable doubt about his innocence.

Peterson believed his columns in the local newspaper where he criticized police as having biased law enforcement against him, charging that politics was the root of the prosecutors Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and Freda Black (Parker Posey)'s campaign against him. Peterson is defended by his crafty, media-savvy attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg). After his conviction at trial (and time spent in prison), there will emerge the "owl theory," claiming Kathleen was attacked by an owl and died from her injuries.

The series raises questions about how fact and fiction play out in the American criminal justice system. Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche), the editor of the documentary, who will later write to Peterson in prison and eventually become his girlfriend and ardent supporter, maintains that a trial is a competition with a jury deciding who tells the better, more convincing story and their verdict determines "justice."

Quite hauntingly, the series re-enacts the gruesome staircase scene three times to play out the three possible motives: accident, murder, owl and the use of the grisly, upsetting autopsy photos (not for the squeamish).

Great acting
Colin Firth gets his best role since his Oscar-winning performance in "The King's Speech." Firth has played gay several times, most memorably in Tom Ford's rendition of Christopher Isherwood's "A Single Man." What is so remarkable is that he's not afraid to showcase Peterson's negative qualities (i.e. he lied about receiving a Purple Heart in combat while serving in Vietnam), his ability to shift emotions rapidly in scenes, simultaneously expressing manipulativeness and vulnerability.

Parker Posey in 'The Staircase'  (Source: HBO)

In one episode you leave sure Peterson's guilty and the following episode you're now convinced he's innocent, thus creating suspense despite awareness of the final outcome. The whiplash twists and turns come to the very end, highlighting pieces of the puzzle we might have missed at first glance. All that remains is ambiguity.

He's matched perfectly with Toni Collette, one of the greatest actresses alive today. She breathes life into Kathleen so we don't see her just as victim, even though the script gives her less to work with than Firth. She gives Kathleen —a driven Nortel executive— nuance, exposing her idiosyncracies, yet also displaying the devoted but exhausted mother trying to hold together a patchwork family and a demanding husband. Also, the audience is presented with ensemble acting at its finest, with the actors playing the adult children all spot-on superb.

Michael Stuhlbarg, robbed of an Oscar nomination for his superlative father role in "Call Me By Your Name," returns to top form as the determined calculating lawyer forced to coax his reluctant client. Juliette Binoche is radiant, particularly in the latter half of the series when she has to re-evalute her perceptions about Peterson.

And Parker Posey (Queen of the Indies), complete with a North Carolina drawl, is glorious as the flinty, conniving district attorney. All these actors are worthy of Emmy nominations, as is the series itself, in one of the year's distinguished productions.

We seem to return again and again to that staircase, forever fascinated by what did or did not happen that fateful December 2001 day. This "Staircase" leaves as many questions as it answers, but keeps us glued to the screen from the first frame to the final Peterson glance. This is one staircase worth climbing.

'The Staircase' drama miniseries on HBO MAX

'The Staircase' docuseries on Netflix

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