When the Golden State Killer — born Joseph James DeAngelo — was caught in 2018, more than three decades after his last known murder, it was a triumph of investigative ingenuity. Using DNA evidence collected from crime scenes well before “genetic fingerprinting” entered police toolkits, officials were able to identify DeAngelo, a former law enforcement officer, via a genealogy database and DNA samples taken from his trash. But for the true-crime community, the closing of this long-cold case was also proof that their obsessive sleuthing and the pressure they exert on police could bring a killer to justice.
Author Michelle McNamara was fixated for years on the Golden State Killer, who is believed to be responsible for at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in three California towns during the ’70s and ’80s. Her monomania — along with her victim-centric approach to true crime — are chronicled in the posthumous bestseller I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, published two years after her death at the age of 46. HBO’s adaptation of her book, spearheaded by prolific documentarian Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), strives to bring to the small screen McNamara’s attempted reforms to the immensely popular but justly maligned true-crime genre.
In one crucial way, this version of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark wildly succeeds. Garbus seizes the torch that McNamara left behind in focusing on the survivors — how they might have been better protected, and how they suffered for decades. (DeAngelo was a serial rapist in the Sacramento area before escalating to murder, and because his victims tended to be young women or teenage girls, many are still alive.) Particularly compelling are the survivors’ accounts of how the rape culture of the ’70s — with cops seldom taking sexual assault seriously, and victims pressured to keep silent — facilitated the sprees of serial rapists. DeAngelo could count on that silence to target homes in a tight concentration of neighborhoods, with few the wiser.
One survivor, an adolescent when she was attacked, recalls her father becoming irate when she revealed to a friend that she had been sexually assaulted. Another, now middle-aged, says she can only speak up about her experiences even now because her parents are dead. If DeAngelo had never preyed on her, “who would I be now?” she wonders. In a remarkable reunion of the victims, a couple observes that they were the only ones to stay together after the attacks. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is hardly alone in its victims-first tack, with predecessors in The Keepers, Surviving R. Kelly, Finding Neverland and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. But that makes the accounts of DeAngelo’s survivors no less powerful or urgent.
Garbus is a skilled-enough filmmaker that she could’ve fit all of the above accomplishments within a two-hour feature. But in swimming against one true-crime current, she ends up swallowed up by another: narrative bloat. In line with the autobiographical bent of the source material, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is as much an extended eulogy of McNamara as it is a recounting of the Golden State Killer case. These two modes of the six-hour docuseries finally find a shared theme in shattered domestic peace very late in the series, but McNamara, as she’s depicted here by Garbus and her team, isn’t dynamic enough as a traditional screen “character” to hold such sustained interest. What should be a bingeable mystery feels too often like an indulgent slog.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark includes plenty of video footage of McNamara from the last years of her life, revealing a woman who’s evidently thought long and hard about her passion for cold cases — as well as one grappling with professional insecurities until her death. Her voice suffuses the series, though it’s Amy Ryan who reads the stubby, ultra-direct sentences from her book. But the frequent text exchanges between McNamara and her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, can feel distractingly intimate, even if they’re in service of illustrating the tragedy of a life cut much too short.
By making McNamara’s story such a major part of her account of the Golden State Killer case, Garbus is clearly experimenting with the true-crime genre and what it could be. McNamara did bestow DeAngelo with his sobriquet, but I’ll Be Gone in the Dark never quite persuades that the killer couldn’t have been caught without the author’s contributions, making the connection between them, despite her book, ultimately feel somewhat tenuous. Given their extraordinary survivals, perhaps the spotlight should’ve shone just a little bit longer on the victims.
Premieres Sunday, Jun. 28, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO