‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ Tells the Haunting Story of Michelle McNamara’s Hunt for the Golden State Killer
Few films or TV shows can be said to truly have a little bit of everything. The six-part HBO docuseries “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” fits that description perfectly. An enveloping, unsettling experience full of pathos, it is a vast story about crime, the writer’s life, obsession, love and the unrelenting opiate crisis. Still that is not enough to describe the resonant depths of this chronicle about those who venture into the world’s darkness, seeking answers or closure to try and make more sense of the unthinkable. Michelle McNamara was such an individual.
The docuseries introduces McNamara as a natural-born writer who at a young age became intrigued by crime following the murder of a neighbor. As an adult McNamara began a blog in 2006, “True Crime Diary,” which gained a huge following at a time when this particular strain of media started coming into its own. Before long McNamara became intrigued by the unsolved case of the East Area Rapist, an attacker who terrorized a large stretch of California in the 1970s. As she began diving into the case and gathering details and evidence, McNamara also met and fell in love with actor-comedian Patton Oswalt. They would marry and in 2009 have a daughter, Alice. Around this time McNamara pitched an article about the “EAR” to Los Angeles Magazine, which published the feature that became an instant sensation. A book deal followed that required McNamara to dive even deeper into the case of the deranged mind she would christen “The Golden State Killer.” The writer’s full throttle quest into the case, and the belief that it was possible to find the killer, took an emotional toll on McNamara, who became hooked on opiates and died of an accidental overdose. Parallel to telling this part of McNamara’s story we also meet the survivors and hear personal stories behind a horrific set of crimes that would total 12 murders and 50 rapes.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” easily proves to be more striking and powerful than any fictional crime movie. It is based on the book of the same name eventually published under McNamara’s name, but because it is being produced after her death it is able to cover more than just the facts of the crime. It balances a detective story with intimate biography. While many true crime series focus primarily on the case and suspects, this one is about the human toll of trauma and how behind the gruesome headlines, there are real lives and individual stories dealing with the aftershocks. McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer is almost a conduit for the various layers of her personality revealed in each episode. As a crime story, directors Liz Garbus, Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane and Josh Koury give the docuseries a dreamlike, nightmarish texture.
The opening credits are set to a mournful cover of Leonard Cohen’s evocative “Avalanche,” a lament of a life consumed. Photographs of the victims, maps of their neighborhoods and footage of what those houses look like today capture the eeriness of a crime scene, the way the violent act seems to leave a ghostly touch on everything impacted. One episode opens with the camera slowly tracking towards a wiretap recording apparently of the Golden State Killer phoning a victim, breathing heavily and uttering, “I’m gonna kill you.” The details of his crimes are just as unnerving, from late night home invasions resulting in rape and eventual murder, to how the women attacked were nearly helpless in an even more misogynist age. An officer explains how even when rape cases went up in Santa Barbara, the police would shrug since it’s a college town. Vintage public service clips make it clear that if a woman finds herself followed by a potential attacker at night, it’s the fault of what she’s wearing. From Sacramento down to Ventura, the attacks would continue from roughly 1974 to 1986. As a cultural document the moments where “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” the title is taken from a phrase uttered by the attacker to a victim, is a valuable window to a cultural moment in America. One victim recounts how after her terrifying rape her family simply never spoke about it, preferring to deal with the attack by burying it. The attacks occurred primarily in upper to middle class suburban neighborhoods, where the image of American prosperity was suddenly and bloodily shattered.
Alongside the story of the crime is the equally enveloping story of McNamara. These sections are almost reminiscent of the great film “Capote,” where Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Truman Capote during his years writing “In Cold Blood,” slowly becoming consumed by the very crime fueling his art. McNamara finds love and family with Oswalt, and we are allowed to get a sense of the maturity of their relationship via private text messages. Yet she then tries to balance family with the grueling demands of a book deadline, made even more crushing by the kind of material she begins to absorb and process. The quest of documents, boxes of case files and eyewitnesses obsesses McNamara and her sleep becomes rattled by nightmares. You almost need the cold demeanor of her researcher, Paul Haynes, an amateur sleuth she hires for his impeccable abilities who admits he has little emotional reaction even to big victories in cracking cases. Of course McNamara was more than just a snoop after morbid tales. Her writing shines precisely because of its human angle. The docuseries does her honor by focusing so much on the victims and their personal stories, because that is how her writing worked as well. She combined autobiography with reporting, channeling her own fears and inner turmoil. An episode opens with her describing a sexual assault experienced while living abroad in Belfast and the icy legacy of her mother, which compelled McNamara to be independent-minded at a very young age. You get the sense from her story and that of other featured true crime figures, such as Karen Kilgariff, co-host of the “My Favorite Murder” podcast, that part of the allure of exploring these cases has to do with what they say about human nature, our fears and the capacity to survive.
Oswalt himself is a presence in the documentary but never overtakes it. He is here to share what he remembers about McNamara, and his own pain from losing her in 2016 when she overdosed one morning. Himself living in a high-pressure work environment, Oswalt never noticed the dangerous consistency in all the meds McNamara was pounding as she struggled to finish her book. Yet eventually her work proved not only impactful but effective because everything she compiled helped colleagues find the killer that haunted her dreams. How his identity was uncovered thanks to evidence and DNA, and the details of his own fractured, dark life could be an entire other docuseries. By the end this becomes a narrative about survival, from all sides. Oswalt keeps McNamara’s memory alive by promoting her book and cherishing what once was, the victims come together to celebrate justice being served and how they can finally speak of the horror that changed their lives. The shadow of a monster is cast wide and even the killer’s nephew appears on camera, reminiscing about disturbing memories that now make terrible sense.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is also a phrase uttered by the Golden State Killer to a victim. It is an eloquently fitting title because this is a collection of lives all swallowed by some kind of darkness, some however emerged to see the light of justice and a chance to start over. Oswalt has to celebrate her victories without her, explaining to their daughter who her mother was and the work she accomplished. McNamara sadly did not live to deliver another book, to investigate more of the cases that obsessed her. In one sense this is a great docuseries about the writing process itself and how carrying it out the craft with passion comes with dangers when it means staring into the abyss.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” premieres June 28 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.