'No One Saw a Thing': TV Review

Would have been more compelling as a scripted drama.
8/1/2019

SundanceTV's docuseries explores the demise of a small Missouri town after its citizens murdered a bully in cold blood.

Empathy can be a dangerous thing. Far from the traits of kindness and compassion, which do not require us to feel others' emotions before we act on their behalf, empathy is an inherently selfish beast. It's biased, it's based in the moment and it's blinkered to long-term consequences. People go to war because of empathy. People kill because of empathy.

Weaponized empathy is the rumbling engine behind SundanceTV's six-part docuseries No One Saw a Thing, a true American horror story about the moral penalties of vigilantism and revenge. Captivating but repetitious, the true-crime documentary from director Avi Belkin examines the 1981 cold-blood murder of Ken Rex McElroy in rugged Skidmore, Missouri. McElroy, a bullying Goliath among a small farming town of aggrieved Davids, was sitting inside his truck midday outside of a central bar when he was shot in the back of the head. More than 40 witnesses saw this happen and knew the perpetrators, yet not one person spoke to authorities, leading to a cold case that is still open.

Pulpy No One Saw a Thing explores codes of silence, corrosive country justice, Wild West pioneerism and the ominous nature of mob rule. Via eyewitness accounts, we're privy to McElroy's alleged history of terrorizing the residents of insular Skidmore, a town of fewer than 300 people — theft, arson, burglary, domestic violence, rape and molestation of girls under the age of 13. According to interviews, he once shot an elderly grocer because the man's wife accused McElroy's young daughters of stealing candy from their store. After evading the law for the umpteenth time (even the town sheriff was supposedly afraid of him), burly McElroy continued to stalk and intimidate the old man. And that's when the citizens of Skidmore held a "secret" town meeting to decide how to protect themselves from their tormentor once and for all.

As Belkin argues, however, McElroy may have been a scapegoat, a golem they conjured from their collective sins. As we learn through dramatic reenactment, interviews with colorful locals and 1980s journalistic footage, rural Skidmore has a history of cultural independence and a mistrust of municipal authority that stems from its frontier past. (Even before I watched the doc's segment on a notorious lynching that occurred in Skidmore, I wrote in my notes that McElroy's story would be a perfect case for Atticus Finch to argue.) In the decades following his murder, Skidmore was afflicted with malevolent death and violence unusual for a town of its size, including drug wars, suicide, gory murder, disappearances and, most appallingly, an unborn baby cut from its mother's belly and kidnapped.

Told as a daylight horror narrative, No One Saw a Thing captures the creeping menace of village groupthink similarly explored in classic stories like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Wicker Man, The White Ribbon, Peyton Place and Midsommar. (There's no surprise this miniseries comes from Blumhouse Productions, a horror production house behind popular films like Get Out and The Purge.)

While Belkin steers clear of overt supernatural elements, he does allude to a sort of lurid cultural haunting that desiccated a once-lively heartland mill town, as though every tight-lipped Skidmore resident were wandering the streets whimpering "Out, damned spot!" at invisible bloodstains on their hands. Yet it may have perhaps been more truthful to frame Skidmore's demise through a political and socioeconomic lens related to, but not necessarily caused by, McElroy's murder.

Belkin spends a lot of time repeating that the children of Skidmore absorbed the twisted moral lessons of McElroy's fate, his subjects using a lot of clinical metaphors to describe the post-murder milieu: "bloodlines," "infection," "plague," etc. But the murder of a single man, however ruthless, doesn't account for the spread of meth, the prevalence of intimate partner violence or the poverty and sexual abuse that would lead someone to kidnap a fetus.

Thus, the larger questions of Skidmore's place in the political apparatus remain like a big, fat American-flag clad-elephant plopped in the middle of the TV screen. Instead, Belkin bloats the text by repeating his "weight of sin" thesis ad nauseum. By the end, I was convinced this could have been told with tighter precision in three episodes, not six.  

The most entertaining aspect of the series is Belkin's mastery of tension through intimate focus on locals filmed inside their homes, including McElroy's traumatized adult children and elderly town folk who experienced McElroy's cruelty firsthand. ("You don’t forget the bone, the hair, the flesh," says his son four decades after seeing his father's brutalized corpse.) My favorite interviewee is straight-shooter Britt Smalls, a grizzled hippie whom we get to know immediately when he candidly theorizes that if it had been him, he would have killed McElroy's screaming wife, too. "Do we need violence? You bet your sweet ass we do," he declares, almost endearingly.

With its literary bent and Coen brothers aesthetic, No One Saw a Thing could potentially be a compelling scripted limited series. (The story was previously adapted for a 1991 made-for-TV movie starring Brian Dennehy.) In 1759, Adam Smith pinpointed the psychological mechanism behind much of entertainment: the seductiveness of vengeance. When someone is injured, "We are rejoiced to see him attack his adversary in his turn, and eager and ready to assist him.” Too ready.

Director: Avi Belkin
Executive producers: Avi Belkin, Alexandra Shiva, Jason Blum, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Mary Lisio, Paul Haddad, Chris Leggett, Rafael Marmor, John Ramsay
Premieres: Thursday, 11 p.m. ET/PT (SundanceTV)