2008 Denver International Film Festival

There’s a myth afoot, origins unknown, that life is worth living. It’s a powerful elixir, needless to say, and continues to hold great power despite almost hourly confirmation of having long ago been debunked. Evidence is plentiful, though one could just as easily submit the documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and be done with it. All told, it’s one of the most depressing movies I have ever seen, and while I tend to shrug at most displays of pain and sorrow, this one had me shrinking in my seat. There have been greater tragedies, of course, than the events that unfold during these 95 minutes, and if we’re talking sheer numbers, this one doesn’t even get an invitation to the party, let alone a seat at the table. And yet, Dear Zachary’s tidal wave of despair had me flipping up the collar of my coat, stuffing my hands deep into my pockets, and shuffling out into that appallingly unjust night as if having been repeatedly kicked in the stomach. I hated you, I hated myself, and I hated the whole rotten enterprise that gives rise to such events. If this shit is even possible, I wondered, what conceivable reason do I have to get up in the morning? My god, what a horrible, horrible story.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne first set out to celebrate the life of his murdered friend, one Andrew Bagby; a pudgy, genial sort who seemed to have it all except for the ability to pick sane girlfriends. Working through medical school and eventually settling in Pennsylvania, he is haunted by Shirley Turner, a woman more than a decade his senior, and one capable of more evil than he ever could have known. She is flighty, obsessive, manipulative, a full-blown narcissist, and, quite predictably, a killer-in-waiting. One day, Andrew breaks off the relationship at last, and sends her on a plane back to Iowa. Rather than accept that love fades, Shirley drives non-stop back to

Pennsylvania to plead her case. Her “case”, such as it is, involves luring him to a park and pumping five bullets into his head, back, and buttocks. Casually, and not missing a beat, she drives back to her home and leaves a loving voice mail on Andrew’s phone, primarily to establish her whereabouts. Needless to say, she forgets that along the way, cell phone towers have been tracking her dozens of frantic calls throughout several states, establishing firmly that she was in fact in the Keystone state during the time of the murder. Oh yeah, and her gun is a perfect match. Not that it will matter.

The events of Andrew’s murder, as well as the portrait of Shirley’s unquestionable madness, make for a crackling good story, and have us watching helplessly when the inevitable finally arrives. Throughout this first act, we watch friends and colleagues alike speak to Andrew’s generosity, humor, and imagination (the director is a childhood friend who made home movies with Andrew), and we also meet David and Kathleen Bagby, Andrew’s distraught and unimaginably strong parents. At first blush, it all sounds pretty standard: naïve young man falls for a psychopath, ends us dead, and the killer is brought to justice. Only there is no justice. Nothing of the kind. This too may seem ordinary, but the manner by which it is set aflame and used to mock grieving loved ones has to be seen to be believed. From bail to extradition to Canadian officials with heads firmly up asses (Shirley flees to New Brunswick to avoid capture), the entire process is laughable on its face, and surely one of the most infuriating rides ever captured by a documentary. To complicate matters, Turner announces that she is pregnant with Andrew’s child (the Zachary of the title). And so begins the second, most sinister act.


From this point forward, I will let the story wash over you as it will, and for once in my life, I will not play the spoiler. The events to come are shocking, though not entirely unexpected. If we take stock of this woman, we get a sense of her depravity, though I doubt we want to admit how bad it will get. The best documentaries are always those that start at one place, take a turn, and become about something else altogether, and Dear Zachary is no exception. There’s almost too much to deal with, as it calls into question every facet of a social fabric that seems to go out of its way to inspire people to vigilantism. I sure as hell understand it better than I ever have before. Andrew’s parents do as well, and to push genuinely sweet people to such considerations proves that we’re all but a slight nudge away from cracking beyond repair. So yes, it’s a legal drama of sorts, and a moving story of familial bonds, but it also considers the very nature of love itself, and why so many of us are so damn bad at it. One of the film’s unexplored elements – only hinted at by a few interview subjects – is how a smart, successful, socially popular man became so deeply involved with a woman by all accounts his polar opposite. And why are we so forgiving of glaring signs of instability, even when we know what’s just over the horizon?

It’s all that and more, and easily one of the year’s most unexpected treasures. I was taken to the very depths, and never once regretted the ride. As it all comes together, it forces the most disturbing question of all – in the absence of a god, or any “divine” punishment, how does one deal with an unrequited lust for revenge? If the very person responsible for all of your pain and anguish is no longer available, at whom (or what) does one direct the rage? And how in the fuck do some people keep going? Liquor? Denial? Jesus? What this movie proves to me at long last is that I am a fundamentally weak person, and am ill-equipped to handle anything even one-tenth as dire as this. And sure, I’d like to think that I’d bomb courthouses, or assassinate judges, or slash throats with abandon, but more honest impulses paint a picture of the solitary mourner, weeping quietly behind a locked door. And while Dear Zachary is a howl of pain in the face of a world where human happiness is the last thing ever really considered, it also nails shut that last, most terrifying coffin: we are truly powerless, and life unfolds as it must. We stand by afflicted, our screams fading fast in a sea of indifference.


About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52