Murder by the Coast Documentary Review: A menacing, even if formulaic, documentary
The new true-crime title is largely formalistic in its structure, but benefits from its innately menacing subject matter
Using God’s-eye shots while introducing the viewer to a new landscape can mean little, especially in non-fiction work. However, here's a documentary that uses this shot in multiple instances to evoke a sense of warning and dread. When you see a car driving through an uninhabited neighbourhood on a pitch-dark night to an eerie score, the simple God’s-eye shot beautifully amps up the suspense. The anxiety, of course, gushes from the efficient build-up and storytelling leading towards it. Sans the portentous backstory, the 10-second shot might have been as lifeless as stock footage, but it’s the innate menace and mystery of Murder by the Coast which embellish this film.
Directed by: Tània Balló
Streaming on: Netflix
The Spanish documentary retraces the disappearance of Rocío Wanninkhof in 1999. Drone footage capturing the picturesque coastal community of La Cala de Mijas, located in the Southern part of Spain, welcomes us to the serene environs. Before the voice-overs and interviews from journalists and witnesses take over, the editor allows us to behold the beauty for a few seconds in silence. It’s an exercise to familiarise us with the vicinity that we will be spending the rest of the runtime on dwelling into crimes that stirred up tensions in the laid-back terrain.
When Rocío fails to show up for a rendezvous on a late night, her disappearance sparks off a 25-day-long search activity, only to culminate in the discovery of her decayed corpse. The cadaver, infelicitous for medical assessment, endows no leads, leaving the police with scant evidence to track the possible suspect.
This is where the film gets interesting. In the hands of a different filmmaker, perhaps this might have been a film about the misguided police investigation and ill-intentioned scrutiny that the society inflicts upon Dolores Vazquez, the woman Rocia’s mother was in a long-term relationship with. Dolores is falsely accused of the murder—although the evidence barely corroborates such claims—and unjustly slandered by the media. Dolores’ existence unfurls multiple perspectives in this rather straightforward mystery, with her sexual orientation becoming a means to oppresss her.
Had the filmmaker turned the spotlight towards Dolores, the aftermath of her arrest and following legal proceedings would have made her befitting subject for yet another Netflix true-crime series, Trial by Media. Lesbophobia penetrates the members of the community, ensuing an uproar; the lack of visible remonstrance on Dolores’ face becomes the major imputation levied against her. Collectively, they render her defense standpoint precarious and ensure that she bears the brunt of the skewed gaze, while the mysterious killer walks freely on the coast. Although this forms only a part of the documentary, the unflinching portrayal of the disdain makes it a pertinent angle.
It’s this very angle that heightens the stakes midway through the film. However, the way the narrative plainly segues to the murderer’s identity reveal runs the risk of looking unrewarding. What it lacks in the pay-off, the documentary recompenses with an emotional backstory from the killer’s close kin. The interviews, both on the sides of the victim and perpetrator, drip of betrayal, disappointment, and grief.
Murder by the Coast is no quantum leap in non-fiction filmmaking, but it surprisingly raises a few apposite questions while also being an intriguing 90-minute watch.