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Review: Sensational True-Crime Doc 'The Cheshire Murders' Asks All the Right Questions

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood July 1, 2013 at 11:54AM

“The Cheshire Murders,” airing on HBO July 22, is, in part, a blow-by-blow account of the unspeakable 2007 Connecticut home invasion that left a mother and her two daughters dead, and made Dr. William Petit his state’s leading advocate for the death penalty (which was abolished there nonetheless).
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"The Cheshire Murders"
"The Cheshire Murders"

“The Cheshire Murders,” airing on HBO July 22, is, in part, a blow-by-blow account of the unspeakable 2007 Connecticut home invasion that left a mother and her two daughters dead, and made Dr. William Petit his state’s leading advocate for the death penalty (which was abolished there nonetheless).

But as the film also indicates, no one needed to have died at all.

Directed by Kate Davis (“Southern Comfort”) and David Heilbroner, the documentary offers a thorough review of the crimes, and the attendant controversy regarding the death penalty -- both defendants offered to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole; state prosecutors insisted on a $7-million death-penalty trial.

The Cheshire Murders

The filmmakers also assembled a dream cast of interviewees: The husband and parents of the slain Jennifer Hawke Petit; the brothers and daughter of killer Steven Hayes; the family and even the ex-girlfriend of Josh Komisarevsky, who details, among other things, aspects of Komisarevsky’s sexual profile that prefigured the crime to come.

They didn’t get the police on camera, but it’s easy to see why: Although not reported at the time, officers had already surrounded the Petit house 30 minutes before the killers were arrested – during which time the pair raped and murdered Jennifer Petit, and set the house on fire, killing the daughters.

It’s a sensational film, in the true-crime sense, but one that also benefits from the fact that everyone involved has his or her own agenda: The people close to Komisarevsky and Hayes want to distance themselves from the killers; the lawyers have pro-or anti-death penalty positions they want to voice. Most significantly, the family of Jennifer Petit -- whom one would ordinarily expect to want to avoid filmmakers entirely -- have an unresolved issue with the Cheshire police. 

This is arguably the only documentary to examine the impact of a death-penalty conviction as it unfolds, and one in which the perpetrators admitted to the crimes involved.  It asks all the right questions, while raising quite a few of its own. Does it help people heal or re-victimize them — who gains, who loses?  What emotions drive our definition of justice? And after four years and multiple trials, there lies the irony that Komisarjevsky and Hayes will very likely never be put to death.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Documentary, Documentaries, HBO


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.