'Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime' review: Unsettling, gut-wrenching, riveting

Armed with all the advantages of this genre, Elize Matsunaga is another worthy addition to Netflix’s ever-expanding library of true-crime titles.

Published: 10th July 2021 11:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th July 2021 11:53 AM   |  A+A-

Still from Netflix's Elize Matsunaga.

Still from Netflix's Elize Matsunaga. (Photo | YouTube screengrab)

Express News Service

Halfway through Netflix’s latest true-crime limited series, Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime, a journalist talks about the layman’s fascination with solving crimes, despite all the morbidity. Perhaps this is why true-crime titles rivet us so, as opposed to, say, a thriller. For the inquisitors within us, these documentaries serve as venues that allow us to wear the proverbial detective hat. It demands, of course, that you have a stomach for grisly real occurrences. Armed with all the advantages of this genre, Elize Matsunaga is another worthy addition to Netflix’s ever-expanding library of true-crime titles. This four-part series checks off all the major genre requisites for gripping television: a macabre incident, an enthralling investigation, an exploration of social stereotypes, with just the right measure of social commentary.

In May 2012, the eponymous Elize Matsunaga shot down her husband, Marcos Matsunaga, and mutilated his corpse to erase evidence. Although we know that Elize is the killer, the series doesn’t directly jump to this disclosure, and throughout the first episode, the narrative keeps subverting our expectations, veering towards angles that we hardly think of. This has the effect of making the reveals more rewarding.

Although this mini-series documents a real tragedy, there are some brilliant cinematic touches. After dismembering Marcos’ body, Elize disposes of it in garbage bags at multiple obscure locations. Later, while facing the camera, the erstwhile nursing intern shares how the patients in psychiatric hospitals are drugged and left to drool, unaware of their whereabouts, and the shot intercuts to one of the garbage bags lying at an unmanned location, suggesting a similar plight for her husband’s remains. Another instance is how Elize’s flummoxed state of mind, after she learns about Marcos’s illicit affair, is hypnotically represented by microscopic visuals of the bloodstream and a blurry giant wheel lit up by lighting. Perhaps my most favourite of the lot is how you see Elize recalling her husband’s threat to shoot her down, and how the scene intercuts to medical examiners studying the bullet wounds in her husband’s skull.

Having painted a comprehensive picture of the crime and criminal in the very first episode, you wonder what you are about to get in the three additional episodes. After all, we have seen and learned everything about the crime, right? Wrong. While the first episode essentially lays a foundation for the crime and repercussions, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The other episodes that delve into the couple’s past justify their runtime. This is a documentary that understands that what incites a crime is often as gripping and dramatic as the crime itself. And there’s an important question raised too.

Given that Marcos is the heir to an affluent family, as opposed to the modest Elize, the couple’s contrasting milieus are brought into discourse. It all ends with a question: would people have cared had the victim been poor?   During the court trial, Elize’s defense lawyer says that it’s important to paint a sympathetic image to avoid a harsh sentence. Occasionally, the documentary itself may be a bit guilty of painting such an image of the killer. While its efforts to separate the vulnerable woman from her crime, is laudable—like that moment when she meets her grandmother after seven years during her parole—you do get the feeling that perhaps the  filmmakers themselves sympathise with her.

Whether you buy this or not is a debate for another day. “There are some secrets I’ll take to my grave,” says Elize. It’s a huge credit to this series that it manages to reveal quite a few of them.

Director: Eliza Capai
Cast: Gilli Messer, Stephanie Sherry
Streaming on: Netflix


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