Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries suffers from tonal shifts and a plodding pace.
The appetite for true crime stories can seem insatiable. Mountains of podcasts, TV series, and movies, the latter two sent directly to streaming services, have been released over the last decade, making it more difficult for these narratives to find a wider audience. Netflix’s newest documentary series, Heist, attempts to cash in on this trend to mixed results, telling three stories over the course of six episodes.
Heist splits up each robbery into two, 40ish-minute parts, usually with part one consisting of the setup and part two focusing on the aftermath, which inevitably includes the orchestrators ending in handcuffs. Though directed by three different filmmakers, Derek Doneen, Martin Desmond Roe, and Nick Frew, the series keeps a lighter tone, acting as though each of these thieves got away with it. Netflix is shrugging and saying, “These people are just like you. Maybe you can plan a heist,” until everyone gets caught and goes to jail. Because these stories, though somewhat compelling, have been told before through news articles, longform features, detailed reporting, and endless interviews.
And that’s what Heist is missing: an element of surprise, something the criminals used to their advantage. There’s a scarcity of new or shocking information in these episodes, instead becoming drawn-out retellings of events already on the record. The heists have long finished, and all of these people have already been released from jail. Heist digs up archival photos, a few interview tapes, and old news coverage, but the majority of unseen footage and unheard audio lends itself better to a podcast than a miniseries.
Each director adheres to a similar style, conducting center-of-frame interviews with anyone and everyone willing to talk on these events, which took place sometime over the last 25 years. They plaster the interviewees’ names in giant, yellow font across the screen, giving timeline updates every 10-15 minutes, working chronologically through these stories. There’s a lack of idiosyncrasy, a missed opportunity in letting these filmmakers implant their own style onto these crime-laden narratives.
Instead, the episodes feature reenactments of the events, hiring actors to replay these events. Rather than adding tension, the dramatizations add unnecessary time. While these interviewees tell their life stories and the events that changed their lives (mostly for the worse), over-the-top, almost-corny recreations take away from those very words they’re saying. Watching it play out on-screen actually causes these exciting tales to lose their luster.
The subjects themselves do their best to give detailed accounts of their heists, trying to make the story more juicy than it might have been. And these heists have everything that pulls in audiences in the true-crime genre: drugs, sex, robberies, millions of dollars. Expanded recanting leads to a more watered-down version, though, tiring out the stories’ excitement and tension that can only build for so long. A feature article would have done the job, or maybe a deep-dive podcast, but the stories don’t have enough drama for a full two episodes, and this consistent dragging zaps away your interest.
There’s a scarcity of new or shocking information in these episodes, instead becoming drawn-out retellings of events already on the record.
By the end of each two-parter, these ringleaders, participants, family members, and manipulated crew members garner a portion of your sympathy, especially if they simply got caught up in another person’s idea. For most of them, they wanted to change their lives, or to help those around them.
Heather Tallchief, of “Sex Magick Money Murder,” was a 21-year-old woman with nowhere else to turn, falling in with an now-poet, ex-convict who certainly didn’t believe in monogamy. Cuban immigrant Karl Monzon, of “The Money Plane,” only wanted a family, and after his wife’s multiple miscarriages, he recruited his family-in-law to steal over $7 million, the largest heist in the series. Toby Curtsinger, of “The Bourbon King,” the least likeable heister who served the smallest amount of jail time (30 days) but injected the most amount of steroids, stole whiskey in small amounts, selling it to his friends and softball buddies before taking the entire brunt of the Pappy Van Winkle heist, which was another man’s doing.
If you try to draw lessons from these stories, it gets murky, since the lasting impression ends up as a mix of these three, normal lives transforming into kidnappings, false identities, failed marriages, and ruined careers.The series might reel you in, but without even attempting to find conclusions about why these people chose to risk everything, the docuseries becomes wearisome and bloated, unable to give you the payoff that these stories lack.
Heist is now playing on Netflix.