TV-MA. It's an HBO documentary, so you know it is going to be graphic. There's a couple shots that are really just as brutal as you can get. They were so brutal that I just grew cold. If you are cool with looking at real pictures of real dead bodies, then you should be able to handle this one. It's a real bummer...
DIRECTOR: Liz Garbus
I did it. I found a documentary that hit my wife's weird Venn Diagram of disturbing. A long time ago, a co-worker sent me an article entitled something like "The Most Shocking Documentaries Available for Streaming." We have three free months of HBO for switching to Direct TV (Trust me, that's anything but a ringing endorsement for Direct TV) and we decided we should knock out stuff that we will not be getting after it expires. I remembered that one of those documentaries was an HBO documentary, so we decided to put it on. Within the first couple seconds, I asked my wife if this movie was going to be too disturbing to watch. But those steel eyes just watched, half-doing a puzzle but riveted. (When my wife does puzzles, I read the text aloud. There was a lot of text, so my voice ended up being part of the movie.) I'm not in the Faces of Death camp, but I do find a nonfiction narrative worthy of my attention depending on the subject matter. What is most odd about this movie is that it is weirdly metaphysical. There is an investigation about the events that happened on that day, but the bigger question is about life and whether we can ever truly know someone.
Like with many of my documentary reviews, I will be talking about SPOILERS in this criticism. For those not in the know, a few years before the documentary was made, Diane Schuler took her kids and her nieces on a camping trip with her husband. Because her husband had the dog and a full truck, Diane left with the kids separately to take them to a McDonald's while her husband unloaded the truck and took care of the dog. The trip was supposed to be half an hour from the McDonald's to home. Four hours later, Diane Schuler drove the van full of kids into oncoming traffic on the expressway. Just to make that clear, she went the wrong way on the highway at an insanely high rate of speed. There's already a mystery there about what would cause a woman to do that. First thoughts we had, along with the subject of the film had, is that she had some kind of mental break or a stroke that confused her. Five days after her funeral, it was determined that she had ten drinks in her along with evidence of marijuana in her system. This was a woman who rarely drank and only used marijuana on social occasions. She had ingested this sometime early in the morning because they left the campground sometime around 9:00 with no evidence of alcohol use before she left. Somehow, in those four hours, she put back an insane amount of booze and drugs and killed a van full of kids, with the exception of her son that somehow survived this accident. Her blood alcohol was .19. The movie is all about how this was possible. How could someone who had a reputation for being an outstanding parent, someone who was considered the most responsible person around become a demon? Diane, after the events that killed most of her family, was labeled a monster. She was on a website that stated people who would be in Hell. It is a mystery, but the movie takes an interesting turn from there.
Oddly enough, the movie doesn't necessarily pay most attention to husband Dan Schuler. He's in the movie plenty. But he is not the main subject of the movie. The main subject of the movie surrounds Jay Schuler, the wife of Dan's brother. She didn't lose any kids in the accident, so she is probably the most clearheaded about the events that happened that day. She's not objective, by any means. Her goal is to vindicate Diane and prove that someone made a mistake that day. Jay is a self-proclaimed mystery fan, which really rubs me the wrong way for some reason. She is personally invested in this story and has probably put more hours into the investigation than any other member of her family. She's poured a lot of hours into looking for medical records and keeping in touch with a deadbeat private detective who keeps seeming to extort money from the family to dig deeper. Her main tie to Diane, besides marriage, is the fact that she is helping care for Diane and Dan's son who survived the crash. The most appealing thing about Jay is that she really does care for this little boy who misses his mother and has some developmental issues due to the crash. But there is one moment in the documentary that is very meta. At one point, she is very flustered with one of the experts who tells her that Diane probably drank all of this out of her own free will and she begins to smoke on camera. Through the tears, she exclaims something along the lines of "I can't believe I'm letting you film me smoking. Nobody knows I smoke; not even my family." If I was the director of the movie, I would make that my tagline because the movie really plants the seed that maybe Diane had actually done this herself. Maybe no one really knows anybody else. Diane has friends and enemies. No one really thought that she could have done this, but that's what makes the movie so much more chilling. BIG SPOILER: The movie doesn't give us an answer to whether Diane was in control of her own faculties at the time. There's no evidence of a stroke and there is little evidence to show that she was somehow forced to do this. The only evidence that only slightly gives circumstances to her actions is an abscess in her tooth that may have caused her to self-medicate using alcohol. It never full on points the finger at her. If anything, the movie stresses how there was just a period of time in the car where no one could have known what was going on. Her son tells a very loose story about his mom acting weird. The nieces make a phone call explaining the title of the movie, but the moment to moments are lost to history.
The way that the movie is structured is compelling. The movie starts with an examination of the campsite and a look at the weekend at the lake. It shows the good times and how normal Diane looks. She looks happy and the kids look happy. The documentarians then give a breakdown of the information that they know juxtaposed to maps with a timeline that has been reconstructed. Between these sequences, the movie focuses on the world that Diane left behind. Interviews with family and friends act as character witnesses to this person. Many of the interviews say the same thing: Diane was a type A personality who handled as much as she could. She was responsible and independent, often pushing herself while being the center of attention. Some of her former friends talk about how cool she used to be until she got married, but these women really seem somewhat bitter about what happens after we age out of friendships. They represent the setting sooner than acting as character witnesses against Diane. They are more telling about the grip that New Jersey has on some. Then the film shifts to the present day investigation and Jay and Dan's look into what happened then. Through this, the audience sees the frustration of the single parent. The odd thing that I haven't seen before is the slight character assassination that is tied to Dan. Dan lost his wife and I believe another child. He works nights and has an extremely difficult life. But the movie kind of paints him as a quitter. He seems to be the old definition of "father." It implies that he never wanted children and that raising kids was always Diane's work. It is one of those situations where you both feel bad for him and kind of want to slap him around for a while. There might have been some playacting on the part of Dan to seem heroic, but that starts to fade as the cameras continue recording him. Experts then give their opinions on what could have possibly happened, and these moments are the worst.
The documentary is extremely effective, but the experts they bring in do not seem qualified to comment on the events that have transpired. The experts are not involved in the investigation. Sure, they have lots of degrees and have very impressive resumes, but they only have the information that the documentarians have provided for them. Many of these experts are shown watching the documentary footage with headphone and then comment on the events transpiring. In the same way that I'm not claiming to be an expert on this specific event, they are commenting with the director's influence lording over their heads. Their comments have some degree of validity. What they say is completely plausible, but they say it with such confidence that they almost come across as mentalists. They have some evidence, but they are by no means experts when it comes to the events that have transpired. It really feels like an aftershow and these comments seemed to mirror the same amateur comments that my wife and I were making to each other. The authorities on the story really were valuable, but these psychologists who were watching the footage simply were put there to place doubt in the mind of the viewer. The movie started with the question posed to Jay, "What if we don't find anything to exonerate Diane?" and I think that's the theme of the movie. The real world doesn't have clear cut answers. So by having psychologists and analyst verbalize that theme, the message is far clearer.
There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is a super bummer. For a guy who really likes arguing about the unknown in documentaries, there was a line in the sand where it came down to the idea that the investigation doesn't really bring anything to anyone. The last fifteen minutes is where the filmmakers decided to show the accident and the corpses. Looking into Diane's mental state is important, but without answers, the movie leaves exactly where it begins, with Diane dead and the kids as victims. For those with a morbid fascination to the human psyche, this movie is great. I can't recommend it for everyone. It is extremely powerful, but it oddly didn't change my life. I don't think I'll be arguing conspiracy theories about Diane Schuler at the bar with anyone, regardless of whether or not they had recently seen the movie. All I can really tell this person is that I got bummed out and it's a shame that all of that happened.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.