This isn’t quite a found footage film, though it does contain a lot of to-camera interviews, phone camera footage and other documentary-style material … this has the effect of piling perhaps too much onto the audience, as we have to piece together evidence ourselves even as the film is heavily foreshadowing where it’s going. However, that means that it sometimes feels much more convincing, as if we’re being told only part of a much bigger story and even then never quite getting a handle on it.
In a small California town, retired cop/high school football coach/real estate agent Gene ‘Sackler’ Sarling (John Savage) employs his fresh-faced military veteran son Paul (Aaron Perilo) as a general gofer – though there are obvious rifts in their relationship and those of the extended family (a half-brother is only heard, as if he backed out of being interviewed on camera) and Paul clearly has problems that go beyond possible PTSD. An inciting incident seems to be an attack on (or by) Paul that puts his girlfriend (Vaia Zaganas) in a coma and motivates him to vigilante action. While the film digs into the backstory of the family, going back to the youth of the father, the community is plagued by ‘the East-West Ransacker’, a petty nuisance who breaks into and vandalises homes on the opposite side of town … and we see footage that strongly suggests Paul is this offender, though he might be drifting into more serious antisocial behaviour, including murder.
In an extra frame for the drama itself, the film purports to be a documentary on a series of crimes that have attracted national attention and are due to be the subject of several competing docudrama or documentary features. Unusually, this has an effect on the shape of what we see here – some witnesses are scared off contributing their takes on the legend (the cleancut but disturbed Paul has an online fan-club ‘Sarling’s Darlings’), others don’t want to talk about key areas of the story (a police foul-up), and several contradictions – a therapist (Jessica Lundy) denies even knowing Paul but we’ve seen them in session together – are never quite resolved.
It builds up to a concluding incident that’s mostly withheld from us, the point being that what actually happened has ceased to matter as the cultural phenomenon takes over and the story is wrestled away from the people who took part in it. Writer-director Christopher Lee Parson covers a lot of ground here, so it’s tricky to tell whether losing focus on the Sarlings is deliberate or intentional. It’s well-acted and unsettling, but necessarily leaves us with questions rather than answers.