Although it has been proven time and time again that the truth is often stranger than fiction, the Netflix true crime docuseries American Nightmare takes that statement to a whole other level. Those unfamiliar with the unusual circumstances surrounding the case at the centre of it all will be enthralled and left picking their jaws off the floor at the many unpredictable twists throughout American Nightmare. But while directors Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins do a fine job of giving true crime buffs what they expect and simultaneously subverting established expectations, there’s also a hole that begins to develop in the material. While it tells the nuts and bolts details of the central case just fine, there’s a whole lot of material around the periphery of American Nightmare that’s just as eye opening and potentially incendiary, but all of it is being left on the table. It’s good, but it could be even better.
In the early morning hours of March 23, 2015, on Mare Island in the city of Vallejo, California, thirty year old physical therapist Denise Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, were the victims of a home invasion. The perpetrators were allegedly armed and wearing wetsuits, claimed to be ex-military, and said that the target was supposed to be Aaron’s ex-fiancee, and not either of them. This didn’t stop the invaders from sedating and tying up Aaron while they kidnapped Denise. The kidnappers demanded a ransom, and tried to devise a convoluted way of keeping Aaron from going to the police. It didn’t entirely work to plan, and Aaron eventually contacted the authorities the following day. The response Aaron got from the Vallejo P.D. and consulting FBI authorities was outright hostile and combative, with everyone in power refusing to believe this man’s outlandish sounding version of events.
That’s the basic set-up for American Nightmare, but any true crime fans familiar with the now infamous “Gone Girl case” – so named because the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel had been recently released – know that this doesn’t head in any expected (or sometimes even logical) direction. The more authorities press upon Aaron for the truth, the further away Huskins’ stressed out family gets from justice for their daughter. For those unaware with the case, I won’t go out of my way to spoil any of the shock value Morris and Higgins are trying to craft, but suffice to say that it’s a unique and often purposefully frustrating and emotionally gutting experience. The case caused a sensationalized media firestorm, but below the surface was a tremendous lack of judicial oversight and investigation taking place.
Morris and Higgins – who have previously worked on the likes of The Tinder Swindler and Don’t Fuck With Cats – know this true crime territory very well, and American Nightmare is almost custom made for their skill set. They handle the twists and swerves with dramatic aplomb, while simultaneously differentiating the truth of the matter from the fiction that was being presented to the public at the time. There’s a pronounced bleakness to American Nightmare that builds a true sense of empathy for the parties involved, particularly during the hard-to-watch interrogation sequences that have now been made public for the first time (and the traumatizing accounts of some that haven’t). Morris and Higgins handle an outlandish sounding case, and take the claims made within at face value, something the investigators should’ve done from the start.
But therein also lies the main problem with American Nightmare. While it does an exemplary job of showcasing what it means to not be believed by authorities and people in power (something that white audiences should pay particular attention to and think about throughout), there’s a larger story that remains just beyond the reach of Morris and Higgins that can’t be divorced from the larger picture. Whether it was an editorial decision made to keep things swiftly moving along or a more calculated call to avoid stickier legal territory, American Nightmare declines to look further into the troublesome recent history of the Vallejo Police Department beyond simply saying that they conducted themselves inappropriately and made a lot of careless mistakes in a bid to close a case as quickly as possible. The real truth of the matter opens up a larger picture of potential injustice that feels like it should be talked about, but instead goes unspoken.
While American Nightmare ends with the requisite “were are they now” coda, anyone curious enough to do some light digging will find that those statements only scratch the surface of another story that isn’t being told, one that the Huskins/Quinn case is absolutely a part of without directly saying it is. On its own and in terms of depicting the truth about a case that was mishandled from the start, American Nightmare does exactly what it needs to and with a considerable amount of tact. But it’s also curiously a series that might not have produced its most important and potentially groundbreaking episode in favour of keeping the focus on a case that was already sensationalized to begin with.
American Nightmare is now available to stream on Netflix.
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