Credit: Jeff Hutchens / Showtime / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Murder in Big Horn — Razelle Benally & Matthew Galkin [Sundance ’23 Review]

February 1, 2023

As we move ever further into the streaming age, the question of what exactly constitutes a film continues to blur. No longer tethered to considerations of exhibition, method of release, or even a non-serial format, the “movie” exists, definitionally speaking, at its murkiest moment. Are the multi-part, chapter-based Jon Bois projects films? What about the one-off, feature-length “specials” from megacorps, like say Marvel’s Werewolf by Night? Or how about auteur-driven miniseries, like Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep adaptation or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return? Is the mode of consumption a more useful marker than the form consumed in the era of binge? Arguably, the lines aren’t just blurred, but the act of delineation itself an antiquated gesture. Usefulness of the terminology aside, Showtime’s Murder in Big Horn, which was listed as a “Feature” for its Sundance premiere but comes packaged in three parts, is a project incapable of straddling that line, falling decidedly into the realm of episodic television, and evincing clear problems within the context of that form.

Taking the MMIW (missing and murdered Indigenous women) movement as its essential centering point, Murder in Big Horn addresses that cultural tragedy with passion and righteous outrage. The first two parts of Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin’s triptych docu-series tackles a series of murders and disappearances perpetuated against young women of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations of Montana’s Big Horn County. Unfortunately, the work adopts a generically true crime format: circumstances are left murky, law enforcement engagement is presented as questionable at best — this is undoubtedly accurate — and familial tragedies are left to the suffering parties to advocate for. Indeed, across the initial 100 minutes, despite the de facto nature of film’s pseudo-procedural forward momentum, there’s genuine pathos to be mined, as the endemic at hand reflects a legitimate and embarrassing national blight worth exposing and interrogating — Murder in Big Horn casts its suspicious glance upon both state (Big Horn County) and federal (FBI, BIA) action in these marginalized communities.

The problem, then, is that all of this is constructed according to the blandly derivative trappings of true crime TV or podcasting. Little anthropological study is introduced; instead, we’re left only with the homogenous grime of similar accounts of criminality, and the implied but here unexplored broader issues of these plagued communities. There’s certainly profound emotional weight poured into this production, but the individual tragedies are done no favors by the directors’ decision to package these individual stories in such a way, with the most fatal flaw coming in the third part, which is basically pure summation of what has come before. Sure, there’s some bow-tying and thesis- driven, conclusionary reassertion, but the final 50 minutes is little more than a forced exclamation. The tragedies contained herein are real and moving, but the assemblage attests to profound problems of structure and narrative. In this final version, the distinction of form matters very little — whether regarded as film or mini-series, there’s a lack of clarity and shape to how this is all wrapped up. Viewers would be better off hitting the bookshelf, where the literary sphere is at this point doing far more justice to the exploration of this distinctly American cultural cancer.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.