One of the inherent challenges in telling a true crime story is that crimes never exist in a vacuum. For as much as the details behind a particular offense are key, whether it be a misdemeanor or something far more cataclysmic, there are always other factors to consider. “No One Saw a Thing,” a six-part documentary series premiering Thursday on Sundance TV shows what’s possible when “answers” get effectively removed from the Q&A equation. Director Avi Belkin offers a detailed rundown of the circumstances leading up to the death of Ken Rex McElroy, but wisely that is not where the series ends.
Rather than lead up to the public, vigilantist shooting death in the middle of Skidmore, Missouri, McElroy’s death in July 1981 serves as the spark for a long-simmering flame that the show argues is still burning in the collective anxieties of the entire town. Through interviews with many generations of Skidmore residents — most of whom were alive to remember McElroy’s death, even if they weren’t present — Belkin documents the sense of unfulfilled justice that both led to the shooting and has persisted throughout the town over the intervening decades. As “No One Saw a Thing” moves forward to show the tradition of violence that seems woven into the fabric of the town, the series becomes, in part, an attempt of its citizens to remove that stigma.
There’s a healthy sense of repetition throughout “No One Saw a Thing,” which in a different context might be grating and distracting. While there are times in these six episodes that returning to the same ideas of legacies and consequences don’t necessarily offer fresh insight, there’s a part of it that does echo the cyclical nature of what Skidmore residents have had to deal with for the better part of four decades.
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The genuniely gruesome re-created aftermath of McElroy‘s murder — not to mention the brutal crime scene of an unspeakably horrific attack detailed later in the series — become a kind of chorus throughout an ongoing symphony of uncertainty and remorse. All that’s known for sure is what’s trapped in the recreation of McElroy’s shot-out pickup truck. It appears so many times, it’s almost enough to become desensitized to it. If that can happen over the course of six 40-minute episodes, “No One Saw a Thing” invites you to imagine a world where the realities of these crimes have been part of the fabric of an entire town since (at least) 1981.
Living firmly inside the unknowable, “No One Saw a Thing” is also noteworthy in that it asks its audience not to parse murder weapons and locations and timelines, but the very words that its interview subjects put forward as their own form of evidence. As much as a clear idea of events leading to McElroy’s death are still murky, no one is staying absolutely silent. Presenting all of these testimonies without tipping the scale towards one person’s guilt or innocence is a tall task, one that “No One Saw a Thing” deftly manages to do over the course of its six episodes.
In the process though, there’s a certain atmospheric quality to this portrait of Skidmore that doesn’t always have a forward momentum to it. Even as the series moves forward across the city’s timeline, those persistent questions of what motivates this behavior sometimes falls prey to the feeling of stasis that the show argues Skidmore has been under since McElroy’s murder.
But “No One Saw a Thing” arrives at some fascinating conclusions when it pulls back its own documentary facade just a little bit. One of the series’ main tools is footage from a “60 Minutes” interview in the close aftermath of McElroy‘s death. (Belkin previously directed “Mike Wallace is Here,” an account of the life and career of that show’s most iconic anchor.)
It offers healthy portions of a young Morley Safer questioning everyone from the young prosecutor to some of the town’s residents around a dining room table. There’s also tiny moments of B-roll footage and clapboard intros, reminders that even news accounts are subject to a constructed narrative. McElroy’s story is mediated through any number of filters beyond the Skidmore residents themselves, including those from the local newspaper reporters who also offer their perspective on what happened in the town in the early ‘80s and ever since.
Whether or not it was the intent at the start of this filmmaking process to uncover some grand truth behind what happened, the discoveries that “No One Saw a Thing” makes are more in how a crime can affect the collective psyche of not just a town, not just a state, but also the nation. Montages of national news coverage framing grisly events in Missouri track the overall evolution from the act of reporting the news to selling something worth tuning in for. It’s a slippery slope, one that the series grapples with, but like most of the rest of the show doesn’t offer an easy, definitive conclusion.
“No One Saw a Thing” is, in many aspects, an exercise in presentation. If there are breakthroughs to be found, it’s that the most important truth to determine is what happens when answers are withheld from those who need it most.
“No One Saw a Thing” airs Thursday nights on SundanceTV.