My notes on Population Zero
This mock-doc mystery thriller is constructed around a real-life legal quirk which has never been put to the test. If murder is committed in a sliver of Yellowstone Park, a killer could theoretically walk free because the US Constitition guarantees trial by jurors resident in the jurisdiction — but only bison live there, so it would be impossible to empanel a jury. Co-director Julian T. Pinder, playing himself, is drawn to the case of Dwayne Nelson by a mystery email and sets out to document the crime. Nelson is supposed to have shot three young men hiking in the park after a trivial argument, then immediately turned himself in and confessed before slipping through the loophole to serve only a token sentence on the minor charge of carrying a firearm in a state park. The first half achieves remarkable verisimilitude, as interviews with grieving relatives and lawyers on both sides of the case ring true. Without too much fuss, the film also establishes the eeriness of the park and sketches a climate of fear in the small town where Nelson lived. Cowboy-hatted, earnest Pinder becomes obsessed with the case, occasionally arguing with sceptical co-director Adam Levins about how deep he is getting in … and convenient revelations suggest Nelson was playing a longer, cannier game than anyone suspected, with the film itself part of his strategy. It benefits from mostly grounded, muted performances from interview subjects. Even Pinder’s corner-cutting and dramatic overemphasis is believable, touching on a complicity between cold case documentarians and sometimes-dubious subjects. Pinder chews over all accounts of the case, fretting that everything is too neat – then spots a contradiction which leads him to greater insight. This smacks of neat scripting rather than reality, as the second half abandons strict credibility to expose a larger game of vengeance. Inspired by ‘The Perfect Crime’, an article by Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt.