Review: Dear Zachary
For most of us, the real-life horror of a close friend’s violent murder would leave us immobilized with grief, perhaps for a lifetime. For filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, it was just the beginning of a long, shocking, achingly personal odyssey that led him from California to Latrobe, PA, overseas to England, and ultimately to the isolated community of St. John’s in Newfoundland. In 2001, his best friend Dr. Andrew Bagby was brutally killed in a park near the hospital where he worked as a well-loved young physician. The probable culprit, ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner, fled to her native Canada and a few months later gave birth to Bagby’s son Zachary, the infant to whom Kuenne dedicates the film.
Conceived as an exhaustive, cross-country cine-memorial (Kuenne intended to interview every living person who’d known Andrew), Dear Zachary is also an idiosyncratically stylized, wholly riveting investigative doc along the lines of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line; by the end, it has morphed into an impassioned petition for legal reform and child-rights advocacy. The film’s central subjects are the almost unfathomably heroic Dave and Kate Bagby, a former Navyman and his English-born wife who react to the death of their only child with anguish, rage, frustration, and a desire for self-annihilation. Instead of caving to nihilism, they fight to become the guardians of their grandchild, forfeiting their jobs and home and financial security to move to remote Canada, where Turner’s extradition process is thwarted by an incompetent bureaucracy and judicial authorities who have seen fit to let her roam free after John Doucette, her private psychiatrist, (illegally) posts bail. That’s the just the first of many surprise developments in the case, none of them happy.
To tell this story, Kuenne edits a trove of material—home videos, police photos, court documents, taped phone calls—into a dizzying, frenetically paced narrative that conveys a vast array of complicated legal details to underscore the absurdity of the Bagbys’ predicament. Intermittently, Kuenne circles back to revisit scenes from Andrew’s early home life and med-school days, while freely interjecting his own white-hot anger and puzzlement.
If Dear Zachary is not perfect at the level of craftsmanship—the film’s direct-address structuring device becomes burdensome at one point, as does Kuenne’s maudlin score and tendency to overplay his editing hand when Andrew’s loathsome killer appears on-screen—there’s enough gut-twisting revelation and frank, affecting testimony from friends, colleagues, and family members to compensate for its rougher edges. The almost Euripidean suffering of the Bagbys, people forced into intimacy with a manipulative, unstable woman they are certain murdered their beloved son in cold blood, takes a breath-stealing twist near the end, opening them to more heartbreak than seemed possible and exposing the brutal brainlessness of a system that utterly failed them. Fiercely personal and often unbearably sad, Dear Zachary deals with loss and violence in a manner that’s honest and courageous and, in its own intensely devotional way, almost sacred.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER, 2008. (OSCILLOSCOPE PICTURES). 98min. Opens Cinema Village, October 31; wide release November 7.