|In Yellowstone National Park:|
You can legally get away with murder,
a bear once chased a burning bison and
a documentary filmmaker buys a really stupid hat.
Population Zero (2017)
Dir. Adam Levins, Julian T. Pinder
Scr. Jeff Staranchuk
Prd. Tyler Levine
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Three young men go camping in the majestic Yellowstone National Park. They are shot at point blank range. Their killer calmly turns himself in and confesses to his crimes. He cannot be charged with murder. After serving 60 days for illegal possession of a firearm in a national park, he goes free.
Documentary filmmakers Julian T. Pinder and Adam Levins want answers. Why does an American constitutional loophole exist so that anyone - I repeat, anyone, can commit an act of first-degree homicide (or any crime of their choosing) in a tiny stretch of the Yellowstone National Park?
That is the question.
This mere 50-square-miles of parkland spills over into Idaho and Montana, but since it is federal land, the powers-that-be have morphed the entire shooting match (as it were) into Wyoming's federal district.
Sure, American Presidents commit murder all the time whenever the country engages in spurious wars, but if, say, President Trump was a guest on The Late Show and he blew Stephen Colbert's head to smithereens with a handgun, even he would face murder charges. If, however, he went camping and ran into Stephen Colbert on this isolated stretch of Yellowstone in Idaho or Montana, he'd be able to rearrange Colbert's face with a shotgun blast and not be charged with murder. That is because President Trump would not be able to face a jury since the population of this region is zero and every American has the God-given right to face twelve peers.
With Levins operating the camera and Pinder on camera, Population Zero is a quest for truth. Who were these young men? Why were they murdered? Who was their killer? And why, oh why, did he get away with murder - legally and constitutionally?
As documentaries go, Population Zero is a strange duck. Sometimes it feels like a cheesy piece of true-crime reality TV blended with a kind of Michael Moore-like filmmaker-as-obsessive hunter/detective. It's ultimately better than the former, but its dalliances with the latter are mildly flawed since the filmmakers' personalities, agendas and back stories don't quite connect with their quarry, nor are they adequately presented in contrast.
All that said, Population Zero is compulsive viewing. As things ramp up, especially when the filmmakers uncover increasingly shocking clues and get closer to the killer, the film is flat-out chilling and during its last third, genuinely scary. It's one thing for this geeky pair to interview family and friends of both the victims and the killer, it's quite another when it seems like the whack-job, who has all but disappeared upon release from jail, begins leaving a trail of clues for the filmmakers - intentionally. Along the way, the filmmakers also uncover an environmental tragedy in Williston, North Dakota which, actually might tie-in to the horrible crimes.
I had certainly heard about the oddball American constitutional loophole (God knows, I listen to enough George Noory, Art Bell, Linda Moulton-Howe and other alt-news personages to be acquainted with it), but what forced me to keep watching (in spite of suffering as co-director Pinder insists upon wearing one of the ugliest hats I have ever seen anyone choose to wear) is that the story of these three sweet young men being murdered and their killer getting away scot-free was completely new to me. I try not to pay too much attention to world events, but when the film ended, this fella was scratching his noggin furiously over the fact that this was one item, the mass killing in the park (and subsequent constitutional controversy), that had inexplicably slipped well below his radar.
It turns out that there's a very good reason for this. If you want to know why, stop reading, watch the movie, then come back and read the rest of this review.
|Exhibit A: a press release|
Exhibit B: a producer
As any of my regular readers (and friends and colleagues) know, I do everything in my power to know as little about any movie I see before I see it: No trailers, no puff pieces, no reviews and even averting my eyes to posters, ads and social media babbling. When I get press releases for new movies, I never read them - or rather, I can't help but read the first few lines when I open email missives from the publicists.
In the case of Population Zero, all my eyes bothered to register was the title (a pretty good one), the logo from A-71 (a very cool Canadian boutique distribution company) and, conveniently positioned on the right-hand bottom of the credit block, the name of the film's producer Tyler Levine (a former student from when I taught at the Canadian Film Centre).
OK. Three good reasons to request a screener link (yeah, critics almost seldom pre-screen indie films in theatres). Password-protected Vimeos are the cinema of choice. Besides, I have the luxury of not bothering to review movies I don't like, so if the movie stinks, I can turn it off and not write about it. (Oh, don't worry, I STILL enjoy crapping on any bad movie I am forced to sit all the way through.)
So I watched this movie. All the way through. Then it ended.
So why the hell had I never heard about this crime (and lack-of-punishment) before?
I went back to the press release. Ah, this is NOT a documentary. It is a narrative constructed AS a documentary. Pretty decent job, dudes. You fooled the shit out of me. I also should have wondered why some of the documentary subjects looked familiar. Uh, a few of them are character actors on TV and in the movies.
I do wonder how I'd have responded to the movie if I knew, from the get-go, that it was a fake doc. Well, I'll never know now. What I DO know is that it's a damn enjoyable movie as it stands and I highly recommend that everyone stop going to see movies knowing what they're going to see. It's so much more edifying.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** 3-Stars
Population Zero is being released in Canada via A-71 Entertainment.