Created and directed by Campos (Leigh Janiak directed two later episodes not offered to press), “The Staircase” is an American gothic about the modern family, which in this case includes many conflicted step siblings, wealthy parents with secrets, and giant splatters of blood at the bottom of a stairwell, dried into their Durham, North Carolina home as if it were always part of the wallpaper. Colin Firth stars in the series as Michael Peterson, who at the beginning of the series is accused of murder when his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) is found dead at said stairs, covered in her own blood, with extreme head trauma that suggests a beating. It’s far from an open and shut battle for justice, on either side of the court house.
The mystery creates an immense divide between the extended family, including the children from Michael’s past marriages, who have always known him in a certain light. Michael has a history of manipulating people, and for making some big lies—like that he received a Purple Heart in combat, a lie that blew up in his face and haunts his current run for City Council. And it becomes clear that while Michael may or may not have been a murderer, he has other private manners he’s only carefully shared with his closest circles. But how his loved ones see him might be able to help his image, like how his daughters are urged by his lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) to speak in front of the cameras. The children in “The Staircase” (played by Odessa Young, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, and Olivia DeJonge) visibly suffer for the sins of their parents, in public, and in the quiet, former shell of their home.
But “The Staircase” takes the domestic tension even further, by reckoning with how we largely know about this event, focusing on the 2004 documentary that was made by French filmmakers led by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. “The Staircase” as a Russian doll saga is not just the possible murder, it’s how it became a story that was bent and revealed and protected, depending on who was telling it. The French angle is more and more integrated into the story (how perfect, given Campos’ French wannabe character study “Simon Killer”), but it also creates a revealing dynamic as the doc filmmakers stand in for the audience. Sitting at a diner, they analyze what they’ve just filmed, recreating the banter that comes with watching these stories. When they’re inside the Peterson home, they alter the entire atmosphere, for us to see how a camera makes all the difference in how the truth comes out.
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