The anonymity of the Internet is both its blessing and its curse. Make no mistake about it, the protective cloak of clever screen name and eye-catching avatar can, at times, allow us to be a bolder, tougher, more "pure" version of ourselves; we can talk tough without having to back it up on message boards and in chat rooms, we can blow off steam in comments sections and dispense with niceties. But there's a danger to that lack of accountability. "You can say anything you want online," we're told early in Barbara Schroeder's documentary Talhotblond. And you can be anyone you want. But those kind of fantasies can create a tangled, complicated web, and sometimes people get hurt. Ask Thomas Montgomery. You can't ask Brian Barrett, because he's dead.
The film is narrated from Barrett's point of view (an odd choice that indicates either a quest for originality or a love for Sunset Boulevard), as he relates the tale of the man who killed him, and how that came to happen. The murderer is Montgomery, a blue collar guy from upstate New York in his late 40s who became dissatisfied with his life--his factory job, his floundering marriage, his overall malaise--and found an outlet, as many do, on the Internet. He began playing online poker, and striking up chat conversations with his fellow players. And then he met her.
Her screename was 'talhotblond,' and she was beautiful, athletic, flirtatious... and 18 years old. "I knew I wasn't gonna meet this girl," he remembers, so he made up an identity--a younger, idealized version of himself named Tommy, screen name 'marinesniper.' Tommy was 18, youthful, jubilant, about to deploy, and crazy about 'talhotblond', whose name was Jessi and lived in West Virginia. "It made me feel like a kid again," he says of creating and living as his alter ego. He liked "Tommy" so much, in fact, that he wanted that life to eclipse his real one, for "Tommy" to take over his personality, to live as the younger man, to be with his online love. As you might guess, it didn't go so well.
The story of Tommy and Jessi (and Brian, the unfortunate co-worker who wandered into their online "romance") is a fascinating, compelling one, and Schroeder's film is masterfully constructed--we don't know where it's going, but we know it's nowhere good. Through current interviews and a skillful montage of their pictures, videos, and instant messages, the twisting story is told--of the sickness that they shared, the dark fantasies, the mental abuse, the petty jealousies that got so far out of control, they left a bystander dead.
Schroeder finds some clever ways to break from the talking heads mold, such as the stylish (and effective) use of on-screen text for their IM exchanges. She wisely lets the words on the screen speak for themselves (there are no cheeseball, To Catch a Predator-style voice-overs), particularly as Tom reveals himself to be a vile, violent, rage-filled racist, and by showing how his fury mounts as his attempts at reconciliation are ignored (there's something perfectly cold about the way "talhotblond has signed off" lingers on the screen). The doc's fast pace is effective as well--it clips along at a slim 75 minutes, barely letting us get our bearings as the situation goes further off the rails.
In its shock-twist construction and true-crime roots, Talhotblond is somewhat reminiscent of another recent (and excellent) MSNBC films documentary, the stunning Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It is not that film's equal--the narration device doesn't really work (and it allows for too much on-the-nose moralizing at the film's end), the music is a little obvious, and there are some bothersome exclusions (where was his wife after her discovery of his secret?) in favor of salacious details. For that matter, the other victims (his family) are only glimpsed or barely heard. But at the end of the film, there is an interview with Jessi's father that is devastated--and devastating. It packs one more punch into this powerful nonfiction thriller.
The anamorphic widescreen image is pretty much up to documentary standards--there's a less than lovely look to the color reproduction that belies the shot-on-video source materials, but contrast is good, lines are clean, and the picture is mostly free of noise and artifacts of note.
The 5.1 mix sounds like a little much for a talky documentary, and it is certainly underutilized; it's all in the front and center channels. But the interview audio is clean and audible in the center, while music is well-distributed and sensitively modulated in the front surrounds.
No bonus features, not even a menu.
Everyone's heard horror stories about stalkers and pedophiles and the various creeps that are lurking in the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web. And many of us have, at one time or another, tip-toed into a chat room to see what all the hubbub's about, and might have even told a fib or two in the process. The cautionary tales about both tend to have a "well, duh, of course not" air to them, but Talhotblond goes beyond those generalities into deeper territory--places were emotions run high, and motives are dark. The film has its flaws, but it has an immediacy and intensity that is tough to shake.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.