A pre-credit warning tells us that what we’re about to see is all real, and that none of it has been staged. Because no, you really can’t make up stories like this.
In 1981, two filmmakers (Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader) made a documentary focussing on the escalating levels of gun crime, violence and murder in the United States. But despite the importance of the subject matter to a nation reeling from years of bloodshed, it never saw the light of day in America through a commercial release. Instead, the shock doc has lived on in infamy thanks to releases in Britain and Japan. Now, 35 years on, its Blu-ray debut is just around the corner in the UK and – for the first time ever – in the USA. Better late than never.
I find it both baffling and understandable that this collection of grim, no holds barred tales of the real life macabre hasn’t been widely seen, particularly in America. Baffling in that it’s as applicable today as it was back when initially released, with violent crime rates still startlingly high. But understandable because whilst seeing these crimes on a graph is one thing, watching footage of the crimes first hand is quite something else. Which is what The Killing of America features most prominently. Death, destruction, detailed accounts of terrible acts, and stark, horrifying imagery. It’s not for those with a weak stomach.
Though it’s dated in its storytelling devices, and even restored it visually shows its age, important historical events such as those shown tend to speak for themselves. The series of murders witnessed over the film’s duration are retold through a mixture of footage from newsreels, interviews, and amateur recordings, with narrator Chuck Riley loosely filling in the blanks. Whether motivated by hatred, racism, fanaticism or otherwise, each felony is linked by violence, and that’s the through-line which the film viscerally forges ahead with. But it’s questionable as to whether it has any further substance or depth to offer. Compared to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), for example, which discusses the same subject matter, it’s a bit one note. But what it does discuss, and what it does show, will stay with you for a long while.
John Lennon once told us: “All you need is love”. It’s Lennon’s lessons that The Killing of America leaves us with. And it’s those lessons which we’ve collectively failed to learn. That a 35-year-old documentary about violence and murder can still be so relevant in the present day is both impressive and terrifying.
Rating (out of 5):
The Killing of America is released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 31st, courtesy of Severin Films.