At the beginning of the HBO documentary Twist of Faith: America Undercover,
which was nominated earlier this year for an Academy Award and gets its television
debut this Tuesday, firefighter Anthony Comes gives a personal video tour of his
Toledo, Ohio, firehouse — courtesy of a camera provided to him by director Kirby
Dick. Comes obviously loves his job, and when he trains the camera on the iconic
fire pole, he can still conjure the sentiment of what sliding down that pole on
the way to risk and rescue means. “Every little kid’s dream,” he mutters off-camera.
It’s the last acknowledgment of youthful hope Comes makes in the film, because as someone who was repeatedly abused sexually by a Catholic priest when he was a boy, Comes has become a man wracked with suspicion and bitterness. After moving his wife and two children into a beautiful home in a sought-after suburb, Comes discovered that his molester — who during the period of abuse routinely invited young boys for drunken weekends at his lakeside cottage — lived five doors down from his new house. After being informed by the bishop for the diocese that Comes was the only person to make such charges against the priest — who left the church in 1987 but is now a school dean and still around boys — the bishop later revealed to the press he’d been aware of allegations surrounding the priest for nearly 15 years. And with a daughter getting ready for her first communion, Comes is torn over which pressures will win out: being there for her as a father, or protesting an institution he may no longer believe in by refusing to attend. Throughout much of the intense coverage of the sex-abuse scandals rattling the Catholic Church through 2002 and since, outrage over obfuscation, unchecked power and delayed justice has been abundant. But a sense of the day-to-day torment of living with abuse has been woefully missing. In Twist of Faith, Dick — an experienced hand at documentary portraits from his films about masochist Bob Flanagan (Sick) and philosopher Jacques Derrida — shows us in agonizing yet respectful detail just what makes clergy abuse an especially torturous crime. As evidenced by what the Boston victims went through, church leaders never figured out that by covering up their protection of pedophile priests, they were keeping the wounds open. Before putting his name on a lawsuit, Comes had been able to function as a worker, husband and dad. But after going public, motivated by the unfolding events in Boston and around the country, we watch a guy slowly unraveling as his identity becomes that of a prickly, sullen abuse survivor. The startling thing about Dick’s film is how we can be utterly moved by Comes’ brokenness — the weight loss and the hollowed-out look in his eyes often tell all — but also understand where his devoted wife, Wendy, is coming from when she fearfully voices concerns for their marriage. Later, Comes picks a fight with his supportive if emotionally reserved mother over her continued allegiance to the Catholic religion, but apart from some pointed views — in one scene he blurts out that the money she tithes is paying the lawyers that fight her son — the dispiriting realization is that Comes’ unfocused anger is only adding to his deterioration. More than a few times, people refer to some future time when “it’s all over,” as if a settlement or public apology will magically make Comes’ agony evaporate, his abuser’s face disappear from his dreams. Dick makes it abundantly clear that there may not be an end, only the lingering question of how strong one’s coping skills are. Twist of Faith, which showed here last week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, isn’t out to stoke the fires of injustice, although the facts of the story do so with little embellishment. That kind of heated emotion cools all too easily in a culture hungry for the next headline-screaming scandal. What Dick is trying to do is chart the slow poisoning of a soul, to show you what Comes’ scars look like, sound like and feel like. Although it makes the film at times unbearably sad, it also lends it an invigorating sense of purpose. And to that end, the use of self-operated cameras for the couple’s more personal disclosures is inspired, a suitably unsubtle metaphoric flip side to what the church’s confessional has come to signify: just more buried secrets. It would be nice if summer rollouts of new one-hour dramas were a mandate
for networks to think outside of such ratings safety nets as detective squads,
crime-scene analysis and perp profiling. Aren’t we supposed to be reading crime
fiction at this time of year, anyway, as we trek outside and hit the beach?
It’s a year-round season now, however, and while there’s plenty of brain-sanding reality TV to make our homes the equivalent of paperback-strewn beaches, we’re still getting cop shows. But the genre is starting to feel like a house of cards, as if it would take only one ill-timed new copycat effort to finally make everyone wish they’d never pushed Law and Order on all their friends years ago, and swear off plucky puzzle-solvers and specialty police units forever. That said, TNT’s The Closer flickers with individuality in this realm, while Fox’s The Inside could send viewers over the deep end. Both shows are set in Los Angeles, and both trade on the stand-out abilities of female sleuths new to the city. In the case of The Closer, created by James Duff, it’s Deep South transplant Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick), who has been brought in to head the unit assigned to powder keg–level, headline-magnet homicides, called LAPD’s Priority Homicide Squad. Like an estrogen version of McCloud, Sedgwick’s Johnson has a hard-nosed quality that leads her to willfully sidestep investigation protocol to get to where she wants to be, which is face-to-face in the interrogation room with a suspect or holder of valuable information. There, like an estrogen version of Andy Sipowicz, she prevails. But then there’s the locker-room pissiness of her all-male department, which she navigates like an estrogen version of Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. (That’s not a running gag error, either: Sedgwick plays Johnson as if her toughness, intelligence and wit blossomed naturally from her Southern femininity, whereas Helen Mirren plays the dogged Tennison as if womanhood were a liability.) The familiar parts of The Closer — a little bit of CSI ickiness here, a little bit of inter-police NYPD Blue squabbling there — are decidedly enhanced by the clever writing and Sedgwick’s fragrant, funny portrayal. (The way she picks up food and puts it down without eating it is funnier than any bit of obsessive behavior on Monk.) But over on The Inside, there’s an unintentionally creepy idea behind the show’s intentionally creepy premise: a rookie FBI agent in the Violent Crimes Unit (Rebecca Locke) whose childhood experience as an abductee offers her special insight into serial sickos. Is exploiting a trauma survivor’s dark head space really appropriate for good guys vs. bad guys fodder? At least over on Medium Patricia Arquette’s channeler is having visions of crime whether she likes it or not. Here, it’s a course in psychic wounds as career advancement, with Locke’s performance of the Calvin Klein Obsession variety rather than the Clarice Starling school. And based on the number of times a dead woman’s peeled-off face was shown in the pilot episode, one can only surmise that creators Tim Minear and Howard Gordon have their own kidnapping scheme in mind: holding brains captive with gruesome imagery. A final note: With crime dramas now overrun by the Special Victims Unit, Major
Case Squad, Priority Homicide Squad and Violent Crimes Unit, does that mean these
fictional universes carry a Run-of-the-Mill Murder Unit, or an Inconsequential
Homicide Division? Are there truly murders that are more exceptional than others?
I wonder what the mother of the umpteenth child brought down by gang fire has
to say about who or who isn’t “special” or “priority” or “major”?
TWIST OF FAITH | HBO | Tuesday, 10 p.m., with repeat showings throughout the week THE CLOSER | TNT | Mondays, 9 p.m. THE INSIDE | FOX | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
At the beginning of the HBO documentary Twist of Faith: America Undercover,