With I Just Killed My Dad, director Skye Borgman completes something of an unholy trinity of works for Netflix. The first, Abducted in Plain Sight, told the almost-incredible story of the kidnappings of Idaho teenager Jan Broberg who was abducted by her parents’ close friend Robert Berchtold – twice. The second, released last month, was Girl in the Picture, about the Sharon Marshall case. That unpacked the convoluted sufferings of Suzanne Sevakis – Marshall was one of the several aliases she was forced to live under – who was abducted by Franklin Floyd and raised as his daughter until he decided, after years of sexual abuse, to make her his wife. She died in a suspicious hit and run accident at the age of 20, as she prepared to leave Floyd, having had barely any life at all.
It is strange how well the true crime formula still works. All these years since the streaming platform first established the template with the breakthrough hit Making a Murderer, you still get sucked in by the set-up. I Just Killed My Dad opens with a description and reenactment of how the then 17-year-old Anthony Templet, from a comfortable, affluent home (“In my eyes, Burt treated him like a king,” says an uncle), took two guns in his hands and shot his father, Burt. He then calmly called 911 to report what he had done and waited outside for the police.
“I don’t know if he has any empathy,” says the assistant district attorney who put together the prosecution’s case. When Burt died of his injuries three days later, the detective involved with the case tells us that Anthony was charged with manslaughter. Interviewed by Borgman now, Anthony explains expressionlessly that he “felt terrible” afterwards but “didn’t see any other way it was going to get resolved”.
By the end of the set-up, all the primitive bits of your brain are baying for blood. It’s so clear! SO clear! Even though you know, even though your rational brain is telling you it can’t, it won’t be that simple, that the whole point, the absolute raison d’etre of true crime documentaries is the pivot that turns everything upside down – you are convinced. That – however unethically when you are talking about the death of one and the suffering of (usually) many others – is the fun of it.
If the subsequent cataract of revelations in the Templet documentary don’t quite reach the astonishing force of those in Borgman’s previous films, they are still enough to sweep away a substantial number of whatever struts you have underpinning your faith in humanity.
Thanks largely, it seems, to the concerns of a co-worker at Anthony’s first job, the context of the killing was gradually revealed. He was perturbed by the fact that Anthony’s father had a tracker on his son’s phone and would call the office if he noticed he hadn’t moved for half an hour. He was also worried by Anthony’s lack of general knowledge (of who Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise were, for example), of specific knowledge (about his relatives) and of the myriad little skills (like high-fiving) you would expect a normally socialised near-adult to have.
In a tale probably as old as time, even if history – written by the victors – doesn’t record it as such, it turns out that Burt was a serial abuser of women. He had illegally gained custody of Anthony after beating his mother for years and wearing down her physical, emotional and financial resources until she could no longer trace the son he abducted. Anthony lived a life of emotional neglect, physical violence and constant surveillance, kept away from interactions with any form of authority, including school, and any interactions with children and any other potential friends who could offer the boy a way out.
Six months before his death, Burt’s second wife, Susan, had also left him as a result of abuse. Burt’s violence towards Anthony increased and his behaviour became more and more erratic. He started carrying the guns that his son would eventually use against him.
Seen through this lens, Anthony’s lack of affect becomes the natural reaction to a lifetime of fear – and one spent trying to avoid setting off a volatile jailer. His mother Theresa’s testimony about the time she has spent trying to recover from 10 years of beatings and longing to see her stolen son again, and his grandmother’s description of the violence suffered by generations of the women in her family, are among the most heartbreaking – in a despairingly crowded field – you are likely to hear.
Borgman lays it all out before us with her customary consummate skill. She lets the participants speak their truths, while weaving in the practicalities and difficulties of the case via interviews with the lawyers. The way she frames and edits the story serves to challenge viewers’ assumptions along the way. What it is to know that she will never run out of stories.