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Plenty of thrillers employ third-act twists as a way to keep the mystery going, while revving viewers up for the finale. But the one used in the serial killer documentary The Confessions of Thomas Quick is so good, it’s hard to believe it’s true.
The story follows the travails of Swedish criminal Sture Bergwall, who claimed responsibility for over thirty murders throughout the 90’s, including that of an 11-year-old boy whose disappearance had become a national event a decade earlier. Bergwall (aka Thomas Quick, his nom d’assassin), was convicted for eight homicides, making him the most notorious killer in his country’s history, and shocking the public with the calmly detached way in which he described his many unspeakable acts.
The twist [spoilers ahead] is that Bergwall never killed anyone, and Quick was the pure invention of a demented mind – of an erstwhile offender (he did commit an armed robbery and a stabbing, and was charged with molesting several young boys) who spent the better part of his life confined to mental institutions for the criminally insane.
It was at one such psychiatric clinic (in the quiet Swedish town of Sater) that Bergwall partook in a new therapy program, earning favor with the staff by confessing to a series of high-profile murders that turned him into a star with special privileges (including access to illegal drugs). For a genuinely disturbed man seeking attention, being Sweden’s number one criminal was the best way to lead the good life behind bars. Too bad if he wasn’t the monster he pretended to be.
British director Brian Hill (Climate of Change) relates the events of Bergwall’s life in rather sensationalist fashion, cutting between one-on-one interviews – including an extended talk with the “killer” himself – and stagy recreations that bring to mind TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted. It’s not always the most subtle way to explain such a complex case, though the various interviewees help enlighten us on how a “perfect patient” like Quick/Bergwall made all his psychiatrists’ dreams come true, especially during reenactment therapy sessions where he fabricated gruesome childhood memories in order to justify his serial killer instincts.
As Hill was unable to interview those doctors and detectives who, either through incompetence or professional greed, convinced themselves that Bergwall was guilty, Confessions can feel slightly lopsided in its final section, never giving a real voice to those who were duped by the whole affair. But as an account of groupthink gone bad, mixed with the story of a sick man who made himself seem even sicker to get ahead, it’s a fascinating document – and one that could have made for a classic Swedish crime thriller in the hands of a writer like Henning Mankell or Camilla Lackberg.
Technical contributions are above par, with cinematographer Roger Chapman using creeping drone shots and cool colors to give the film an eerie feel throughout, even if the dramatized scenes often feel too stylized for their own good. Released in the U.K. this past August, and making the festival rounds with stops in Rome, Copenhagen (CPH: DOX) and Amsterdam (IDFA), Confessions could interest true crime enthusiasts in Europe and elsewhere, especially on the small screen. You have to see it to believe.
Production company: Century Films
Director, screenwriter: Brian Hill
Producer: Katie Bailiff
Director of photography: Roger Chapman
Editor: Mags Arnold
Composers: Nainita Desai, Malcom Laws
Casting director: Par Brundin
Sales agent: independent
No rating, 93 minutes