Lifetime Network original films have become a genre onto themselves, much the same way that SyFy original productions have found their unique niche in the cable machine. Both networks churn out a very particular style of product: SyFy an endless parade of genetically crossbred monsters pitted against one another as they rack up (mostly human) collateral damage, Lifetime an endless parade of tearjerker/true crime melodramas usually zeroing in on damaged relationships and spousal abuse. The quality of the films is never high, nor is it expected to be. In that sense, Lifetime's recent production of "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" represents a new level of professional ambition veering ever-so-slightly away from the tawdry; the treatment of something so topical and current demands a more refined approach to narrative and structure. For Lifetime, it wouldn't do to just rehash the facts in a wash of muted colors and tear-stained faces: the audience needs to be hypnotized in order to be properly horrified by the sheer brazenness of Drew Peterson and his bloated narcissism. Who better to inhabit and ultimately realize that moon-sized ego than Rob Lowe?
The film plays out almost exactly as the case itself did. Modern day lothario Drew Peterson became the focus of a police investigation and a national media frenzy after the inexplicable disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Ann Cales (played by Kaley Cuoco of "The Big Bang Theory"), in 2007. A police officer himself, Peterson was long suspected of murdering his third wife, Kathleen Savio, by forcibly drowning her (though the death was initially ruled an accident); Savio's family maintained that Peterson was responsible, and that Savio's death was the terminus point of a destructive relationship laden with psychological torment and abuse. Peterson constructed a bravura persona defined by gross misogyny and a feeling of imperviousness that bordered on the godlike; his second wife Victoria Connolly described him as "a legend in his own mind." Lowe's portrayal certainly makes that the crux of Peterson's personality, imbuing him with a swagger and arrogance difficult to reconcile with his lackluster physical appearance and outdated opinions of women. Lowe's Peterson is pure caricature, the epitome of mindless villainy, the guy you love to hate-not far from the reality.
Told mostly through newscasts and other media appearances shot through a simple narrative of elliptical discovery, "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" looks to do little other than give the audience a straight run-through of the events, barely rising above the level of an episode of "America's Most Wanted." The sheer force of Peterson's bloated self-confidence occupies the screen en-masse at all times; even when coating his obvious insecurities with the threat of violence (such as when he drops in on Stacy and a male friend having lunch and accuses her of adultery) he remains the controlling force. Peterson's world is the world as made by Peterson, defined by his suspicions and allowing for little outside influence. The view is singular to the point of anachronistic, with Peterson inventing his own versions of events and effectively feeding his own delusions. Perhaps most troubling is his attack on Stacy at her sister's funeral, where he confronts her about sleeping with her sister's husband, asking her later to tell him "...how many times you banged him." Peterson's apparent need to be cuckolded speaks volumes about his actual levels of confidence; the only intimacy available to hi is blind rage. His hostile suspicions more than make the case for him committing violence against his wives (a theory the film wholeheartedly endorses); Stacy's awareness of this violence and her constant relegation to it elevate the inevitable melo-tragic result.
The film hinges on Lowe's performance and little else. I wouldn't have watched this, except i happened to run across a ridiculous scene during some late night channel surfing and was immediately sucked in by the over-the-top charisma in Lowe's performance. Out with buddies who paint Peterson as the ultimate ladykiller ("I'll bet Drew gets more tail than anyone in this place," one toadie blathers), Peterson rises to the challenge and approaches two young ladies at the bar, telling his friends that "Big Daddy's gonna get it done." Lowe, looking like Mike Ditka vacationing in Hawaii, saunters over and immediately seals the deal. I was struck by the absurdity of it and made myself watch the film the next time it aired. While there's little remarkable about the actual film itself (director Mikael Salomon has done serviceable work for television and feature film for years, but nothing mind-blowing), Lowe completely gives himself over to the role, enjoying every minute of portraying this hammy, over-confident blowhard. In scene after scene, Lowe chews it up: emerging from his garage in majesty on his motorcycle, strutting out of his front doors in an American flag bandana and aviator sunglasses while mugging insanely for the camera (looking a little like a patriotic Unabomber), and terrorizing his suspicious neighbor Karen (Katherine Dent, giving her small role more than it deserves) by raising and lowering her garage door (seriously?) as he delivers the film's titular line: "I'm untouchable, bitch." The fun Lowe seems to be having is infectious to the viewer. Peterson is repugnant, but we can't get enough of him. In this sense, the film works masterfully, illustrating the grotesquerie of Peterson's media appeal and our fascination with domestic brutality. Stacy recedes under the weight of Drew; his posturing and performance all but erase her memory, and the community at large begins to lose sight of the fact that she's probaby dead. She's collateral damage in Peterson's personal thrillride. Cuoco's abysmal performance does little to actually give Stacy any depth: she's either a battered and terrified wife or a strong take-no-shit lady. Cuoco can't decide; the scenes where she stands up to Peterson feel like rote line recitals. There's no emotion; Cuoco makes the viewer feel as though nothing is at stake. Even her attempts at assuaging her own guilt over her imagined complicity in Peterson's crime against Savio feels empty. While the real Stacy certainly suffered, Cuoco's portrayal is merely insufferable; Lowe overwhelms her at every turn.
Peterson's odyssey has the feel of phantasmagoria, one unbelievable contrivance after another. His steadfast denial of involvement in either of his wives' disappearances has made him something of a self-styled pariah. Though Peterson has yet to go to trial (he is in prison waiting to face charges of murder against his third wife) Lifetime allows no presumption of innocence: in perhaps the film's penultimate scene, the camera slowly heads up the stairs and pans to Peterson's open bedroom door, where he's seen standing menacingly across from a large blue barrel supposedly containing Stacy's body. The scene is rendered in ghastly, sickening greens and jaundiced yellows; it's ethereal, surreal, and slightly skin-crawling. Peterson and his friend are then seen loading the barrel into the back of Peterson's SUV. Apparently based on a confession from Peterson's body-dumping accomplice, this scene destroys any pretense to objectivity the film may have had; rather than the studied (in theory) portrait of an American crime that "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" could have been, it instead becomes another gas-soaked log on the media fire. Lifetime films are about opportunism in the same way that episodes of "Law and Order" were "ripped from the headlines," but here there's an absence of resolution both laughable and disturbing. Is the film meant to be taken seriously as a meditation on the problem of abuse, or is it mere camp thought up for the sole purpose of seeing Rob Lowe mug it up beneath a bushy moustache? Or does the real purpose lie somewhere in between, giving viewers a vague, blurred comment on the commensurability of tragedy and consumerism?
The answer seems to lie in the film's bizarre final scene in which Peterson is processed at prison. In grueling slow motion, we're treated to Lowe stripping down in a lurid, grinding, mockery of a striptease, laughing to himself as two state police officers look on impassively. The world is watching, and it loves what it sees. To Drew Peterson, it's all a joke; death, sex, and masculinity are all intertwined in a cosmic stew of entitlement and desire. "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" scrapes the muddiest bottom of narrative storytelling while hyping up the most sensationalistic aspects of a bizarre, fragmented series of events. The gargantuan ego at the center of them makes for a fascinating character study, but Lifetime's treatment of the Drew Peterson saga is the equivalent of a lightbulb flickering in a void.