Talking Movies: Exploring true crime

Fruivale Station's rendering of Oscar Grant III's death is a compelling update to the true crime genre.
Fruivale Station’s rendering of Oscar Grant III’s death is a compelling update to the true crime genre.

Americans like to feel that we invented the ‘true crime’ genre. We think that it happened sometime after World War II, was rooted in classic detective fiction and was nurtured by pulp magazines, film noir, excessive smoking and the shock and disillusionment bred from serial killers and post-war ennui. Several movies currently showing in town and online, meanwhile, demonstrate the breadth of the genre in unexpected ways.

Fruitvale Station

FilmScene — Tuesday, Oct. 28, 6 p.m.

Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station depicts the shooting of Oscar Grant III by transit police in San Francisco in 2009. While it is not a ‘true crime’ movie in the traditional sense, it is definitely about a true crime and FilmScene will reprise the film for a special showing on Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.

Coogler’s everyman protagonist would not share the disillusionment of many of the criminal heroes in a typical ‘true crime’ film. Oscar is portrayed as trying to re-engage with society, not reject its demands. His efforts at self-reform, acceptance of responsibility and re-engagement with his family are both admirable and catastrophic, since they play a direct role in the logistics of his murder.

If you’re rewatching Fruitvale Station, it will likely be difficult to reconcile the amount of fanfare this movie was met with barely a year ago and how it’s ‘true crime’ story has become all the more common since then, with the increased national coverage on police brutality following the aftermath of Ferguson, Mo.   

Contemporary directors like Christopher Nolan of the Following or the David Fincher of Zodiac are probably better analogues to the alienation and social disillusionment often explored by ‘true crime’ filmmakers. However, in many ways Coogler’s film is a better update, asking us what happens when the alienated protagonist actually wants to belong, but is rejected in ways that are filled with violence and blood.

American directors are not the only ones to formulate lurid criminal acts as entertainment in our cinema, and Criterion has recently made available two international ‘true crime’ classics that even casual fans of the genre should see.


Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a French classic originally released in 1959. This urban noir focuses on Michel, a petty thief in post-war Paris, whose main form of employment is lifting wallets with the coolness of experience and the style and manicure of a hand model.

While many crime films urge their audiences to feel sympathy for the criminal hero by explaining motivations, Bresson’s does not. Michel is not especially poor or oppressed, nor a victim of particularly unusual circumstance; he just likes to steal. For him, being a pickpocket is preferable to the more respectable careers available to him.

Bresson’s handling of this moral ambivalence and social isolation benefits immensely from the ‘true’ aspects of this true crime film: He casts untrained actors in lead roles, including real-life pickpocket Henri Kassanji as one of Michel’s accomplices.

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Vengeance is Mine

Substantially raising the level of criminality is another early fall release from Criterion, Shohei Imamura’s violent and entertaining 1979 film Vengeance is Mine. The film is based on the true crime exploits of Akira Nishiguchi, who in 1963 eluded police on a spree of fraud and murder across Japan over a period of 78 days.

The film’s protagonist, Iwao Enokizu played by Ken Ogata, grows up to be a murderer but starts as just a rebellious boy living in Imperial Japan of the war years. It seems he has a lot to rebel against: his parents’ stifling Catholicism, their victimization by the Emperor’s war-time demands and his mother’s failing health.

Iwao’s initial murders seem utterly nihilistic, done without planning or purpose, and in the story that follows, we see a chilling lack of empathy towards friends, lovers, parents, or society in general. We also see a suave, cunning and utterly homicidal anti-hero who uses deception, good looks and sex to achieve short-term goals with little concern for the future. 

Though Imamura’s film is a generation later than Bresson’s, it is even more concerned with themes of tension between older, more traditional social practices and the emergence of a modern country. The style is as gritty and realistic and its protagonist is even more morally distant than Bresson’s. Near the film’s end, while awaiting his execution, Iwao is told by his father that he never feared his homicidal son, because “you can only kill those who have never hurt you,” emphasizing both the son’s nihilism and Imamura’s belief that there may be plenty of guilt to go around.

Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He tries to limit his criminal activity to following losing baseball teams.