Movies

The Movie That Captures the Dangers of “True-Crime Brain”

Missing turns the camera around on the sleuths who can’t look away from real-life cases.

Two girls from the movie sit next to each other on a couch with laptops open and scared looks on their faces.
Temma Hankin/Sony

Society has a true-crime problem. I’m far from the first one to point it out. Long before the investigative podcast boom that followed Serial, we obsessed over gruesome killers, followed dozens of “trials of the century” in the span of a few decades, chewed up sensational coverage, and spat out one victim after another. Our obsession might not be new, but in recent years, TV and film writers picked up on our nasty little habit and started holding a mirror up to it.

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The amateur detectives of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building get roped into solving a convoluted case because of their obsession with the fictional Serial spoof All Is Not OK in Oklahoma. B.J. Novak’s 2022 film Vengeance centers around a fame-hungry journalist who sees his ex-girlfriend’s death as an opportunity for a hit podcast. The HBO Max comedy series Search Party follows a group of friends whose lives are upended and essentially ruined after one of them becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a college acquaintance. And for more than two decades, the Scream franchise has been mocking our fascination with killers and the fame that we often reward them with.

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This self-aware wave of movies and shows has typically addressed the darker aspects of the true-crime industrial complex with humor. Missing, out on Friday, takes a more serious tone, examining the consequences of mining tragedy for likes and views and asking: What exactly is so damn entertaining?

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A standalone sequel to 2018’s Searching, which starred John Cho as a father looking for his teenage daughter, Missing follows 18-year-old June (Storm Reid), a recent high school grad. Her strained relationship with her single mother, Grace (Nia Long), has reached an all-time low as Grace heads to Colombia for a romantic getaway with her new boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung). As with Searching, we watch the entire film unfold via June’s laptop screen. We learn about her late father from clips of old home movies, we catch a glimpse of her social life as her messages blow up about upcoming parties, and eventually, we see June’s life descend into chaos when she realizes that her mother, who won’t answer her calls or texts, has disappeared.

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A lot has changed in the five years since Searching’s premiere, and while Missing doesn’t reinvent the “screenlife” genre, it goes further in its skewering of true-crime culture, illustrating the pitfalls of our addiction and who it turns us into.

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While Searching saw a father dig through his daughter’s online presence to try to solve the mystery of where she’s gone, Missing puts a teenager at the wheel. Growing frustrated that the authorities aren’t doing enough, June deftly hacks into Kevin’s email by answering security questions with answers that were easily found on his Facebook. She traces his Google Maps location history and enlists the help of a TaskRabbit in Colombia named Javi (Joaquim de Almeida) to help her to do some on-the-ground detective work. It’s not long before she lands on a few promising leads, including Kevin’s criminal history.

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The impact of June’s online sleuthing is twofold: Each new clue succeeds in ratcheting up the stakes, but her armchair detective work is also an unnerving reminder of the ways that amateur investigators dig into people’s personal lives and turn everyone into a suspect, whether they deserve it or not.

As the case gains national attention, June watches in horror as her mother becomes a person of interest in her own disappearance. News anchors and online commentators on Twitter and TikTok alike join in on the speculation, pointing to Grace’s lack of close friends and family members as reasons to suspect her, and revealing that she had previously changed her name.

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This is the other side of the coin. Yes, June is successfully unraveling the truth about Kevin while investigating her mother’s disappearance, but she’s also being forced to see others through the same limited lens that her mother is being seen through. And that lens can be distorting. Her distrust of her mother’s boyfriend does lead her in the right direction, exposing part of his scheme and getting investigators on his tail, but that approach also casts aspersions on a completely innocent party, something June doesn’t realize until it’s too late.

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These scenes play out with jarring accuracy, which feels especially haunting after the murders of four University of Idaho students last November. In the six weeks before police arrested Bryan Kohberger, a criminology student from neighboring Washington state, in connection with the murders, TikTok had already become a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

“CrimeTok,” as it came to be known after the disappearance of Gabby Petito in 2021, is a loose community of inexperienced detectives who weigh in on major cases as they develop, often regurgitating the latest updates from authorities and offering up their own hypotheses.
On social media, the lives of victims and potential perpetrators are cracked open and picked apart as if they were characters in a TV drama. True-crime junkies attach themselves to a case and begin poring over digital artifacts, attempting to reconstruct a person they never knew. Real people become flattened, and their intentions become scrutinized. Or, in the case of certain victims, they are lionized, turned into a symbol of innocence—a beautiful girl who “lit up a room” rather than a complex individual. In Petito’s case, too many TikTok creators lost sight of the reality of the situation: A 22-year-old woman was missing, and was later found dead.

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Petito’s case also sparked a furious debate about the dangers of “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” The term was coined by PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill in response to the disparity between coverage of white women compared to women of color when it comes to the victims of violent crimes. Though Missing doesn’t explicitly go there, it’s hard not to wonder how differently things might’ve played out if Grace and her daughter weren’t Black. Would that have changed the frequency of the coverage? Or how quickly investigators responded to June’s initial claims?

This becomes even more complicated as the film nears its final act, revealing that (spoilers ahead) Grace has been a victim of domestic violence. Grace’s lack of close friends isn’t a reason to view her with suspicion; it’s the result of having to move from Texas to California. Her name change isn’t cause for alarm; it was a way to ensure her abusive ex-husband couldn’t find her. It’s a plot point that’s rooted in an unfortunate reality: According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, not only do Black women experience disproportionately high rates of intimate partner violence, but more than half of Black adult female homicides are related to intimate partner violence. To the audience, this twist speaks to our expectations of the genre, asking us to wonder why it’s easier to assume the worst of Grace. In the film, the coverage doesn’t stop or change course, and the commentators who never knew her keep going, their idea of Grace already set.

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On CrimeTok, this same dynamic is playing out in the Idaho murders. Even after a suspect was arrested, an unsealed affidavit only fanned the flames, causing many TikTokkers to question the motives of one of the victims’ roommates—someone who’d recently survived a horrible traumatic event—because of the time it took her to call the police. Even though this roommate, whose name has now been blasted in countless videos and comments, provided authorities with a description of an intruder, for some armchair experts, it still isn’t enough.

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This is the pinnacle of what some critics have begun to calltrue-crime brain.” The ubiquity of the genre, and the overrepresentation of young, female victims, has led to full-scale paranoia. Just scroll through TikTok or Twitter and you’ll find tutorials for “In Case I Go Missing” binders. These videos went viral again last week, instructing women on how to store fingerprints, locks of hair, and even information about potential persons of interest in a binder for investigators to refer to in the event of their disappearance. (You can also buy a premade version with 5-star reviews on Amazon). Never mind that male victims vastly outnumber female victims, that intimate partner violence poses a greater risk than kidnapping, or that women of color and trans women are at much higher risk of violence than cis white women. It doesn’t matter because it’s not the point.

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The point is the delirium, because that’s what “true-crime brain” rewards. But what are we losing when we only see threats around every corner? And what happens after the dust has finally settled? More often than not, it’s on to the next case, on to the next endangered woman. No time for corrections, nuance, or condolences, because that’s not what the algorithm is designed for.

On this point, Missing ends with one final joke. As June’s story comes to a close, we see her on Netflix, where her harrowing journey has been neatly packaged into a bingeable miniseries.

When we look for entertainment in the lives of real people, we harden ourselves, becoming less understanding, more distrustful. We see sinister motives in everyday mistakes. We brace ourselves for incredible “twists” that often aren’t there, and in their absence, we ignore the sometimes difficult truths that hide in plain sight. When we’re always looking for monsters, we don’t just miss out on people’s humanity; we overlook the real warning signs, the actual danger.

Missing delivers the thrills and rug pulls so many of us have sought in true crime, but its most spine-chilling scenes are the ones that turn the camera away from the suspects and back toward us: paranoid, quick to point a finger, and always ready to exploit.

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