★★★ / ★★★★
Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman, directors of “Cropsey,” grew up with an urban legend that a patient from the nearby mental hospital in Staten Island had escaped and aimed to abduct unwary children. When a little girl named Jennifer disappeared, the legend became a reality for everyone. She was abducted and her body was later found buried in the forest. Andre Rand, a drifter, was arrested and convicted to go to prison despite an overwhelming lack of physical evidence that he, in fact, committed the crime.
The conviction relied upon eye witnesses, some of which were former drug addicts and alcoholics. The documentary is riveting because it involves chasing real evil. Did Rand really commit the kidnappings and murders? Although the picture tries hard to get to an answer, the best it is able to accomplish is providing possibilities, highly unsettling because one of the possibilities involve the killer, or killers, not getting his or her comeuppance. For all we know, he might still be in Staten Island, just suppressing the itch to kill. Maybe he was even interviewed for the film and we would never know.
The documentary is very smart in treading the line when it comes to the interviews. While the tone of the questions varies, the questions are not leading, and consistently impersonal. One of the most memorable interviews, which I believe defines the movie, is when the directors asked a woman, a witness, whether she believed that Rand was indeed the one who abducted Jennifer and the other kids with mental retardation.
The woman said that Rand was the murderer and he deserved to go to jail. When asked why she was so certain, she looked into the camera and said that because he looked like a serial killer. He looked like he was capable of doing it. Therefore, he must be the one to have done it. Although it is common knowledge that people make a lot of judgments when it comes to appearances, that reasoning still took me by complete surprise.
It cannot be contested that what happened to the missing, most likely dead, kids in Staten Island was an act of darkest, meanest evil. But let us consider the other side of the coin: If Rand is an innocent man, sending him to jail for many years can be considered an act of evil, too—not just by one person but by an entire community so willing to put a face on the evil the looms over their lives. As the film carefully hints at, Rand is not a man who was always there-there. As history has shown, it is too easy, convenient to make a scapegoat out of people with mental illnesses.
At times, however, “Cropsey” veers off course. Zeman and Brancaccio’s trip to an abandoned mental hospital comes across like a scene straight off horror movies with person holding a camera that violently shakes when something mildly scary occurs. It is not clear as to why they needed to visit the place other than to “scare” the viewers. It is a perfect example where their overzealous storytelling gets in the way of the big picture. Trying so hard is most unnecessary because what is at hand is already disquieting.