Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Craigslist Killer (Silver Screen Entertainment/Lifetime, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched two Lifetime shows relating to the so-called “Craigslist Killer” case in Boston and Rhode Island in 2009, a dramatization called The Craigslist Killer and a sleazy hour-long documentary called Behind the Headlines: Catching the Craigslist Killer. The “Craigslist Killer” was 23-year-old medical student Philip Markoff (Jake McDorman), a brilliant young man with a stunning future seemingly ahead of him, including a totally devoted fiancée, Megan McAllister (Agnes Bruckner), with whom he was living and who was also a medical student, suddenly went on a crime spree when she was out of town for a week. It began when he logged onto the “Erotic Services” section of Craigslist and answered the standing ad for Las Vegas-based call girl Tricia Leffler (Trieste Dunn), who met him at a Boston hotel where she had a room and, despite taking basic precautions (like letting him know what hotel floor she was on but not her actual room number), was overpowered when he pulled a gun on her and started tying her up with plastic zip ties, stole her money and credit cards, deleted his number from her cell phone so the police wouldn’t have a way of tracing him back through his phone number and text messages, and left her fearful for her life but also determined that, even though she was there to do something illegal (prostitution), she was going to report him to the police.

She did so, but because he had no criminal record there was nothing to match the fingerprints he’d left on the scene — until two days later, when he did the same sort of crime, only in this case, instead of complying with his demands, victim Julissa Brisman (Leela Savasta) tried to fight back, and he shot and killed her. The police decided to trace him through the e-mails he’d sent her; they wrote to his e-mail provider, Comcast, for the IP address from which the mails had been sent but during the two or three days they had to wait for this information, Markoff struck again with the same M.O., this time in Rhode Island. His victim this time was a stripper who was willing to do private parties but with a twist: her husband would wait for her in the hotel lobby or another location nearby, she would call him as soon as she registered and gives him a heads-up that the trick was going O.K., and if she didn’t contact him that would be a sign that she was heading for trouble and he should intervene — which he did, nearly overpowering the killer before he knocked them both out and fled successfully. The police get the IP information and find the e-mails luring the victims were sent from Markoff’s Internet connection, but because he was living in an apartment building and had a wireless connection, they have to consider the possibility that someone — either in the building or just outside — was bootlegging access through his Net connection and thereby framing him.

Eventually they get a positive ID when a surveillance photo taken at the scene of the Brisman killing by a hotel security camera is identified by Megan McAllister as her boyfriend — and they stake out Markoff’s apartment, then arrest him when he and Megan are in her car driving up Highway 95, seemingly about to leave Massachusetts’ jurisdiction, and the cops decide that even without all their evidentiary ducks lined up they’d better take him now before he leaves the state. It was probably a mistake to watch the dramatization after the documentary, because it exposed all the deviations from fact in the fiction film; Tricia Leffler, in real life a zaftig blonde with a striking resemblance to Anna Nicole Smith (indeed, one suspects that her clientele as a call girl was men who thought Anna Nicole was really hot and had always wanted to do her, and were willing to settle for someone who looked a lot like her), was cast as a slender, nubile brunette, while the genuinely dark-haired Megan was turned into a blonde, and a rather ditzy one at that. Odder still, the script by Donald Martin and Stephen Tolkin (both scribes with long records of writing Lifetime-style movies) changed the story so that Megan was not out of town when the murders occurred — fact, schmact: I guess they just couldn’t resist the irony of a criminal coming home to his girlfriend and saying “Hi, honey, I’m home” or the modern-day equivalent of that old cliché after he’d been out on a hard day’s night of armed robbery and murder. (Even more ironically, the photos of the real Philip Markoff shown on the documentary showed that in addition to having brains and charm, he was also movie-star gorgeous and actually looked hotter than Jake McDorman — though McDorman was nice-looking enough for the role and it was nice for a change to see a Lifetime movie in which the male lead, even if he was playing a despicable character, was a hot, attractive young man instead of a sandy-haired, lanky middle-aged one in bad clothes or a twerpy-looking teenage twink.)

The Craigslist Killer was an O.K. movie about a subject that could have been handled a lot better; director Stephen Kay has little flair for suspense and shoots the actual crimes in a rather detached, matter-of-fact manner that shows us very little of the terror that must have gripped the victims, and neither the documentary nor the Martin-Tolkin script offered us much insight into What Made Philip Run — he was never tried for the crimes because before that could happen, he made himself a D.I.Y. scalpel and killed himself in his cell, and both movies argued that this denied justice for the victims because it ensured Markoff couldn’t be tried and convicted of the crime. There are a few marvelous scenes here that show what a much better movie this could have been, notably one ironic sequence that cuts back and forth between a police profiler predicting that the killer would be a loner with no close friends, no normal relationships with women and an inability to handle social settings, and Markoff’s actual life, full of friends as well as a fiancée and with every ability to charm people around him and make them feel good.

The closest either film comes to an explanation is one in the dramatization in which Markoff, at the other end of a prison telephone from Megan, tells her about a hypothetical criminal who may have committed crimes similar to those he’s accused of because he was convinced he didn’t deserve everything he had — plus a few bits trotted out saying that Markoff, when he wasn’t studying or interning, was visiting Web sites on his computer about bondage, S/M and Transgender people. I’m not an S/M practitioner myself but I know enough of them to resent this bland equation of S/M with an interest in sexual violence and crime; most S/M occurs between people who have negotiated their roles in the scene and are taking precautions to make sure they minimize the risks — and they would be just as horrified at the thought of a sexual crime as anyone else would, perhaps more horrified than the rest of us if it happened to be a crime in which the perpetrator had forced someone to go through a scene that physically resembled something he or she might want to do safely with a willing partner.