As the grisly, counterfactual but oddly rosy ending of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” continues to be a point of debate among critics and audiences, along comes “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson” to remind even the most insistent detractors of Tarantino’s what-if rewrite of the Manson murders how much worse things could be. Like some unholy collaboration between the Lifetime network and the National Enquirer, Daniel Farrands’ unabashedly tacky true-crime thriller does nothing if not deliver on the bald promise of its title. A grimy portrayal of the last month of Nicole Brown Simpson’s life, gruelingly counting down the days toward her violent murder as she’s tormented by a host of bad men and bad juju, it’s a cheap, unloving death march of a movie — scarcely made more intriguing by the half-cooked theory it posits as to who (or how many) did the deed.
Though it’s getting nominal theatrical exposure, VOD is the spiritual home of a film that could as easily have been churned out for video in the immediate wake of its subject’s death and the exhaustively covered O.J. Simpson trial: Beginning with its grainy Stalkervision camerawork, nothing here has been expressly designed for big-screen consumption. However dubious it is ethically and aesthetically, you can’t accuse Farrands’ film of not knowing its limitations: A year after he helmed “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” in which Hilary Duff played the doomed starlet plagued by visions of her death, the writer-director is carving out his own unsavory subgenre of exploitation, stripped entirely of Tarantino-esque artistic notions. Try as actor Mena Suvari might to imbue Brown Simpson with some sense of wistful, melancholic tragedy, Michael Arter’s script offers both women little in the way of poetry or empathy.
Try she does, though: 20 years on from the teenage promise of “American Beauty,” Suvari’s sincere attempt to make something hurt and human of a character largely scripted as a leering series of psychological red flags is poignant in such chilly, desolate surroundings. Still, there’s only so much an actor’s best intentions can do with much of the dialogue here. “I’m worried he’s going to kill me one day, and he’s going to get away with it,” a tense, anxious Nicole confesses to her best friend Kris (Jenner, that is, played with a fixed moue of concern by Agnes Bruckner). Later, she antagonizes a skeptical cop responding to her latest 911 callout: “After he’s killed me, you can live with the fact that you never did a thing about it,” she seethes.
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This kind of sledgehammer foreshadowing tilts the film into the realm of camp, albeit of the queasy, none-too-witty variety: “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson” wants us to know nothing about its harried, vulnerable subject so much as the simple fact that she got murdered. Well, that and the fact that she had famous friends. The Jenner-Kardashian family’s presence adds a note of cardboard celebrity play to proceedings, to the point that a passing reference to the former Bruce Jenner is followed by the deadpan line, “What a drag”; meanwhile, a badly bewigged Taryn Manning teeters lasciviously on the fringes as a perma-soused Faye Resnick. O.J. himself is absent for the bulk of the film, though implied as a shadowy bogeyman surveyor throughout; a clearer villain is made of Glen Rogers (Nick Stahl, equal parts anguished and skeezy), the real-life “Casanova Killer” later investigated as an alternative suspect in Brown Simpson’s murder, here positioned as a bit-of-rough love interest for the victim at her most defenseless.
Farrands and Arter dance around their own whodunit proposal, hinting at some manner of collaboration between suspects, though never being so brazen as to answer the question at the dingily staged climax. Various possibilities are cloaked in muddy gray shadow, while a muddled coda aims for the shrugging, teasing moral (ir)resolution of a great film noir finish. Needless to say, they fall some way short: There’s no soul here, only needling curiosity, given a semblance of purpose by Crimewatch-style dramatics and some sketchily employed archive material at the bookends. The trial, at least, goes untouched. We’ve been over it a million times, after all, and “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson” is only out to show us what we don’t know, even if the film doesn’t know it either.