“This is a case Randy and I were gripped by when it happened,” acclaimed filmmaker Fenton Bailey told me of his work with Randy Barbato co-directing a new scripted film about the Menendez Brothers' murders. “Now, 25 years later, it felt like, 'You can take a new look at the story.' We're always drawn to stories where people are overexposed but, we feel, underrevealed.”
From its creepy opening, showing idyllic images of Beverly Hills while the late Kitty Menendez (Courtney Love) types up her son Erik's (Myko Olivier) gory manuscript — ahead of a nightmarish sequence depicting the shotgun killings of Kitty and her husband Jose (Benito Martinez) by their sons — Menendez: Blood Brothers (Lifetime, June 11) is a gripping, suspenseful, stylish take on one of the most shocking crimes of the late 20th Century.
It is also, as promised, revelatory.
You will never touch him again, and if you do, everyone will know what you did to him. What you did to both of us. — Erik Menendez, Menendez: Blood Brothers
Thanks to the unblinking but never leering eye of Bailey and Barbato (RuPaul's Drag Race, I Am Britney Jean, The Eyes of Tammy Faye), the film has none of the cheese factor of other Lifetime fare, like Britney Ever After, and gutsily dares to operate from the premise that the infamous Menendez Brothers — while not justified in offing their parents — may be telling the truth regarding their motivation, namely, that their dad was molesting Erik and had done the same in the past to Lyle (Nico Tortorella).
“At the time,” Bailey says, “it was all about the 'abuse excuse' and doubting that they were molested. But we thought, 'What if they were just telling the truth? What if they were molested by their father?' The more research we did, the more sense it made that they probably were.”
When the crime occurred in 1989, part of the brothers' defense — they were tried twice and convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1996 — was that they had been abused emotionally, physically and sexually by their music-mogul dad, and that their mother had known and done nothing. But did the jury take the alleged abuse seriously?
Twenty-five years ago, did America even see sexual abuse in the same light as it is seen today?
Bailey told me, “Now, we know so much more about sexual abuse. Even then, the idea of battered-woman syndrome was a really new, novel defense. I think we became more convinced this was not a normal, healthy family situation; this was a very dysfunctional family. Not that that’s an excuse for doing what they did.”
Erik Menendez is a homosexual. Now, if the defendant were engaging in consensual homosexual sex, wouldn't that explain how he could describe such graphic sexual encounters with his father? — Deputy D.A., Menendez: Blood Brothers
Let's not forget what they did, but there is room to ask why they did it.
Menendez: Blood Brothers is not a documentary, so while it is fact-based, it has a point of view, one in which the brothers believed their parents were about to kill them, fearing exposure of Jose's sexual abuse, and acted preemptively, gunning down their parents and then euphorically spending some of their fortune before being apprehended and facing justice.
The film contains a lovely, fragile performance by Olivier and a surprisingly stolid one from Tortorella as the mastermind who hasn't thought things through; you can see the wheels turning in his head, but his dead gaze betrays his lack of true cunning. The film also finds a way — that you will love or hate — to feature plenty of screen time for Love, even though her character is eliminated early on. Similarly, her take on a feckless, enabling society wife will either excite you or leave you cold, but her director Barbato boldly calls her a “contender” in the role. Will she generate Emmy buzz the way she once generated Oscar buzz, for The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)?
“She was the first choice from the get-go,” he says. “She just embodies the character in so many ways.”
Interestingly, the movie is devoid of camp, even though it features a scene in which Courtney Love's Kitty tears off Lyle's toupee — and that's a neat trick.
It does, however, have a lot of skin. “Sex is present in the whole story,” Bailey stresses. “We don’t shy away from that at all. There were rumors about Erik being gay and Lyle being gay ... In talking with people who’ve been sexually abused and victims of incest, they question their own sexuality and their own willingness to be in that situation. It’s very complex, it’s very layered.”
Indeed, though the film is steeped in sex, it's unlikely to provide jack-off material. Barbato says, “We don’t shy away from controversial material. This is controversial on emany levels. Just having a discussion about sexual abuse with men is still, to this day, not really something that’s discussed in the mainstream, yet it is something that occurs.”
Ms. Abramson, you are presenting a case based on battered-women syndrome. The defendants are men! ... You can't be a battered woman, Ms. Abramson, if you're a man. — Judge, Menendez: Blood Brothers
The film's sexuality is dead-serious, but at the time the boys used their alleged molestation as a defense, people mocked it. Bailey argues, “You see things that are on the edge of the culture ... people laugh about it and mock it at first. We’ve seen the same thing regarding gender in the last few years — there’s been so much change.”
If there is anything lacking in the engrossing film, it might be that it doesn't have adequate time for the many emotional beats screenwriter Abdi Nazemian manages to fit into its script. But considering how two-dimensionally the case was covered by the media way back when, seeming to be more interested in the Menendezes' flamboyant attorney's (a pitch-perfect Meredith Scott Lynn) antics than in genuinely trying to understand why two young men who had everything threw it all away with the squeeze (okay, 15) of a trigger, Menendez: Blood Brothers goes deep.
Do the co-directors want their film's subjects — still imprisoned, still housed separately after all these years — to see the work of art they've inspired?
“Not sure if they get Lifetime in prison, maybe there's some streaming,” Barbato jokes. Then, more seriously, he tells me, “I hope they see it. The majority of the film is rooted in fact, all of the procedural stuff is based on court documents, and while we took artistic liberties, we hope they get to see it because I do think it’s the beginning of imagining ... 'What if they’re telling the truth?'”
Watch Menendez: Blood Brothers June 11 on Lifetime.