AMERICAN NIGHTMARE. How much can one believe in the story from the movie? [REVIEW]

The creators of ‘Tinder Swindler’ once again demonstrated documentary class.

Odys Korczyński

2 February 2024

The mini-series “American Nightmare” has been making waves on Netflix for several days, condemning the negative effects of patriarchal culture, especially regarding the police’s approach to sexual violence against women. It was directed and produced by experienced true crime specialists Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins, known for their previous work on “Tinder Swindler.” They have proven their ability to handle such stories effectively to captivate viewers’ maximum interest. The narrative revolves around the 2015 abduction of Denise Huskins, a case that initially seemed straightforward but posed a significant challenge for the police, journalists, and public opinion.

“American Nightmare” consists of three episodes – the first tells Aaron Quinn’s story, the second depicts Denise’s kidnapping, and the third serves as a resolution, introducing a new character, Matthew Muller. The documentary avoids building on the premise of trying to engage viewers solely with the criminal’s actions and personality, which often leads to unnecessary fascination with disturbed individuals rather than highlighting the victims’ emotions. “American Nightmare” is crafted with immense respect, allowing the victims to psychologically confront the committed crime and presenting ongoing mechanisms of degrading women, even within the context of so-called legal equality, particularly in cases of sexual violence.

The creators adeptly showcase these mechanisms through a true crime narrative, avoiding the common approach of generating artificial sensationalism based on the criminal’s personality. Matthew Muller, the rapist behind Denise Huskins’ abduction, remains in the background. The documentary relies on interrogation recordings and statements from the victims and their families. The material is quite fresh, with ample information in the media, and the creators skillfully compile it. Engaging the victims in the series was likely the most challenging aspect – shaping their image and its presentation could influence how viewers perceive the production. The balance was struck, even though the awareness that it might still be too dramatic for some Polish viewers persists, as they may prefer a more journalistic and sensational approach, as seen in programs like “997.” “American Nightmare” is not that kind of story. Interestingly, within the true crime genre, the creators also minimized the involvement of actors in event reconstructions. These are brief inserts without faces, creating a realistic portrayal of the victims and the perpetrator through their own physical images during directly filmed monologues. This approach adds realism to the narrative and avoids creating artificial scenes in the viewer’s imagination, as often happens in documentary reconstructions of air disasters. And this storytelling method is by no means boring.

In addition to addressing serious societal issues, particularly the sluggish police response, the documentary tackles the significant problem of how the fiction of cinema influences people’s awareness. David Fincher’s production, “Gone Girl,” deeply ingrained itself in the minds of police officers, who considered it a model to be followed by Denise and Aaron – but for what purpose? The ransom was never paid, and Denise was suddenly found. The only problem for the police was the report of the assault on the victim. What could Denise and her boyfriend gain from this, aside from momentary media fame and deceiving FBI agents? It’s essential to realize that after Muller’s arrest and the closure of the case, several important questions remain unanswered. For example, what did Aaron’s ex-girlfriend have to do with the kidnapping, and why did the kidnapper want to take her specifically, not Denise? Another question is whether there was only one kidnapper or if there were more. Finally, how much was one of the FBI agents involved in the case related to Aaron’s former girlfriend? At first glance, it’s evident that these are not unrelated and purely accidental threads. One could even get the impression that only the weakest link fell into the trap, and the original plan was entirely different. Several factors contributed to solving the case – police indolence, the kidnapper’s lack of professionalism, and a bit of luck when a policewoman in Dublin, California, turned out to be more inquisitive and empathetic. Denise and Aaron were fortunate to survive the ordeal, ultimately concluding with a $2.5 million compensation and healing their personal lives. The rest is covered by a veil of mystery that each of us can now explore thanks to Netflix’s documentary “American Nightmare.”

Odys Korczyński

Odys Korczyński

For years he has been passionate about computer games, in particular RPG productions, film, medicine, religious studies, psychoanalysis, artificial intelligence, physics, bioethics, as well as audiovisual media. He considers the story of a film to be a means and a pretext to talk about human culture in general, whose cinematography is one of many splinters.

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