The murder of Kitty Genovese sparked a national outrage in 1964...eventually. At first the general apathy towards the case matched the supposed disinterest that would later be applied to the much-maligned witnesses to the crime. Her death would ignite a larger conversation about the overall mood of disaffection throughout the country, based almost entirely on a fallacy that would somehow become accepted as truth. The story that would run in newspapers singled out 37 (some say 38) bystanders who witnessed the crime taking place at various points, but did nothing to stop it. The truth wasn't anywhere near close to that, but the headlines are all that people remember, turning Genovese's death into a thing of scandalized legend.
Puk Grasten's film, 37, doesn't tell us a thing about Kitty Genovese, whose life was unremarkable before and during her time as a resident of Kew Gardens in Queens, NY. What the writer/director instead tries to do is craft a somber, fictional mood piece that reflects on a handful of dissatisfied, self-absorbed people who could allow such a murder to take place right in their neighborhood. Well, she gets the somber right. Ponderous doesn't begin to describe the dull, lazy one-note constructs Grasten tries to pass off as intimate character studies. The most notable is that of black married couple Archibald (Michael Potts) and his pregnant wife Joyce (Samira Wiley), who are fresh arrivals to the mostly-white Kew Gardens. Archibald is a bold, prideful man who has no problem smiling for the dubious neighbors who greet them. In private he feels the sting of prejudice everywhere, and works to steel his son's spine against it by telling him he'll grow up to be a great boxer someday, just like Muhammad Ali.
Then there's young Debbie (Sophia Lillis), who lives with her Jewish grandparents George (Thomas Kopache) and Florel (Lucy Martin), following some unfortunate business with her mother. The neighborhood kids have pegged Debbie as an outcast, although their unwanted attention also causes them to prank phone call the grandmother. Finally, there's troubled white married-couple Mary (Maria Dizzia) and Bob (Jamie Harrold) along with their alien-obsessed son Gonzales (Adrian Martinez). Mary is a constant basketcase always on edge with her defiant child, punishing him at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile Bob has taken to hiding out in the bathroom to masturbate rather than be around her.
These stories have nothing to do with Genovese, although Grasten hopes to make us believe they somehow contribute to her fate. It's an ambitious, even admirable effort to try and explain an atmosphere of such striking ambiguity, but Grasten reveals nothing of these people through the minor conversations they have throughout. An argument between Archibald and Joyce over the way to prepare their son for adulthood's harsh realities sheds no light on anything when the murder actually begins to be committed. If perhaps Grasten had tried to make the point that a black family is conditioned by prejudice to mind their own business then that would be a valid idea, albeit still told in the most boring, amateurish way imaginable. Worse, once the bystanders begin to witness glimpses of the attack the reasons they ignore it amount to coincidence more than some concerted effort at denial. Grasten shows little ability to tell a compelling narrative either through dialogue or visuals. Her screenplay lacks any urgency whatsoever, while the muddy, unappealing cinematography is like a bad parody of David Fincher's Zodiac.
Grasten tries to build an insightful commentary on the turbulent '60s from a murder case that has been wildly overblown for decades. The mark is missed in just about every way, but it's doubtful more than 37 people will have to bear witness to such a failure, anyway, so there's some comfort in that.
Rating: 1 out of 5