Created by: Antonio Campos
Starring: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Parker Posey, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Rosemarie DeWitt, Juliette Binoche
Review by Sharon Wilfong
HBO MAX’s new true-crime drama miniseries “The Staircase” explores Kathleen Peterson’s (Toni Collette) mysterious death on December 9, 2001. While her husband maintained it was an accident caused by alcohol and valium, the police and prosecuting attornies believed Kathleen’s death was murder. The well-documented case was a media sensation during the trial. In fact, Antonio Campos’s story found its inspiration in a docu series created by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon). Peterson allowed the documentarian to follow him and his family with the camera, recording candid shots while the events unfolded.
The fictionalized version takes a deeper look into character motivations, picking specific details highlighting various aspects of the mystery. Campos’s “The Staircase” pulled together an impressive cast, from Colin Firth, who is convincing as Michael Peterson, to Toni Collette, the quintessential right arm to the patriarch. Firth’s performance leaves the audience with mixed emotions about Peterson’s guilt. On the one hand, Michael Peterson cared for and depended on his wife. On the other hand, we can see the control he had over his family and his propensity to lie.
“The Staircase” thrusts the audience into the horror almost immediately, then slips back in time to create a bigger picture. We see a family that cares for and supports each other—one that will stick together through thick and thin. However, as the story unfolds, family dynamics become more evident. Not only that, but we come to find out how the Petersons’ “sprawling North Carolina family” came to have so many members. Campos uses timeslips to leave the viewer wondering what we don’t know about these characters and their relationships with one another. Revelations drip out both in the past and present story timelines, setting a pace that engages the audience and captures the imagination. Campos uses themes of family secrets and the facade of the perfect family versus the reality of the pain of those relationships— concepts that are ripe for horror. After all, as the song goes, You Always Hurt the One You Love (Mills Brothers, 1948). Taken to an extreme, like wondering who committed a murder, family members quickly become the monster under the bed. The thing is, Peterson always maintained he wasn’t guilty.
You be the judge.
“The Staircase” premieres on Thursday, May 5, on HBO/Max with the first three episodes. There are an additional five episodes that will be released weekly through June 9th.