VOD film review: Population Zero
Fascinating murder story8
Matthew Turner | On 14, Apr 2017Reading time: 3 mins
Directors: Julian T. Pinder, Adam Levins
Cast: Julian T. Pinder
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Inspired by an article by a university law professor, entitled “The Perfect Crime”, this effective low-budget chiller begins as a Making a Murderer-style documentary, with filmmaker Julian T. Pinder (who co-directs with Adam Levins) investigating a fascinating legal case. In 2009, a man named Dwayne Nelson confessed to the killing of three young men in a remote part of Yellowstone National Park, but he was never tried, owing to a bizarre legal loophole that requires trial by jurors resident in the jurisdiction. Since that particular strip of land is uninhabited, it offers no potential jurors, which allowed Nelson to walk free, receiving only a minor charge for carrying a firearm in a state park.
The circumstances alerting Pinder to the case are already suspicious (he receives an anonymous email), but the mystery quickly deepens, as he becomes obsessed with the idea that Nelson may have planned the murder and lured the men to their deaths. Things get progressively creepier, as Pinder interviews lawyers, relatives and townsfolk, some of whom are visibly uncomfortable when discussing Nelson, suggesting he has some weird hold over them. And when someone starts sending Pinder packages at his motel (the location of which is supposedly private), he realises he’s getting dangerously close to the truth.
If that sounds intriguing then stop reading right now, because this is definitely one of those films where the less you know going in, the better.
Still here? Then be advised that there are spoilers ahead.
The central hook of the film lies in the way Pinder and Levins cleverly blend the conventions of true crime documentary and found-footage horror, making this a significant cut above standard mock-doc fare. In fairness, there are several clues along the way that this is a mockumentary, not least in the fact that all the interviewees are suspiciously good-looking, or that the camera just happens to be rolling at convenient moments, such as the arrival of that package.
Pinder (who adds his own verisimilitude by having a genuine background as a documentary-maker) strikes the perfect note throughout, peppering his general likeability with thin layers of arrogance, and pretentiousness, accessorised by his ever-present cowboy hat. There’s a certain amount of hubris there too, and you can practically taste his excitement as he gets a lead in the case, clearly thinking it might turn him into the next Errol Morris (although, as an on-screen documentarian, he’s probably closer to Nick Broomfield).
The film also benefits from some carefully thought out production design work that makes a virtue of its low budget and showcases a rewarding attention to detail, from the super-cheap motel rooms the pair are forced to share to the various authentic location choices in Nelson’s small North Dakota town.
Part murder-mystery doc (the area of Yellowstone is now known as the “zone of death”) and part horror, Population Zero skilfully ticks the boxes of both genres, resulting in an atmospheric nail-biter that’s chilling and compelling in equal measure.