Religious abuse scandals are getting dangerously close to been there, done that territory, considering how utterly pervasive they seem to be. They’re not there yet though, it never really fails to horrify. The Keepers is, at its core, an unsolved murder mystery that thrives on blurred faces and half remembered horrors. Sister Cathy Cesnik disappeared while shopping for an engagement gift on a November evening in 1969, in her hometown of Baltimore. She was found half-naked, with a hole in her head, five miles from her home the following January.
Her murder remains unsolved, and The Keepers is ostensibly an examination of the investigation that followed. But at it’s heart, it’s a story about corruption in the Catholic church, in the Baltimore police department, and the governing laws that encompass abuse of power. It’s also a story about a grassroots detective movement founded by a couple of retired women; it’s the story of violent and disturbing sexual abuse perpetrated by a monster; it’s survivers insisting on being heard and it is giving voices to the dead. It’s about 20 stories in one. At times draining, in the end The Keepers’ insistence on leaving a million loose threads dangling is more true to life than most documentaries allow for. There is no ending for the victims, so the audience doesn’t get one either.
Decades of misdirection, confusion and cover ups have given this story more layers than Inception, and more characters than those shitty movies about lame Holidays, like New Year’s Eve. Amateur investigators, sleuths, journalists, victims, police officers, lawyers, priests, nuns, former students of Sister Cathy’s, and family members all take up hefty screen time. There are however, a few stand outs. Two former students, Gemma and Abbey, often act as a narrative anchor. Now in their sixties, this morbid Grace and Frankie are the retired champions of Netflix.
A self professed bulldog, Gemma, is fantastic to watch. She bounces back and forth between a smiling, flirting ball of sass and a woman with a laser focus and keen nose for the truth. Abbey is apparently the perfect foil to Gemma. She comes alive in dusty libraries, researching seemingly day and night. Abbey puts my limited technological know how to shame. Together they give heart and hope to a series mired in the kind of raw pain that may never heal. Their determination lend strength to everyone involved.
In highly stylized flashback-like reenactments, the show spends time luxuriating in the discomfort of the audience. Long, low and languid shots of school hallways are reminiscent of The Shining, the camera though in motion never brings you any nearer to the door. There is no escape.
Everything set during the time of abuse is filmed in grainy black and white, lending an unreality to the scenes. Instead of jarring you out of the moment, more often than not this increases your fear in the ways which we only allow fiction to do. Dotted throughout the episodes are crescendos in the eerie music that makes your hair stand on end, making you recall the towering figures of childhood fear.
In episode five, there is even a brief cameo of the mad woman in the attic character that shows up in so many stories to scare us. Told by a woman who is recalling a story she was told by her brother (a suspect in Cathy’s murder) as he lost his mind in the months before his suicide. There exists in his attic a Nun’s habit, standing tall upon a mannequin and threatening him with the past.
This surreal moment stands out as an oddity. In a series that works so hard to grant all of its participants a level of credibility, this scene could be a confusion. But I liked it, it scared the crap out of me. I had that feeling that there was someone standing behind me, and spend a second asking myself if I had locked all the doors. It’s atmospheric elements contribute to an overall sense of unease, which you should really be feeling when confronted with the atrocities in this documentary.
Honestly though, it’s the blurred face in repeated fear drenched reenactments that truly terrifies. The facelessness of this particular evil makes it more pervasive, almost all encompassing. If you can’t recall who it was, it could be anyone and they could be anywhere.
The institutional corruption in the church, fostered by the collusion of the police force and the willful ignorance of the government are almost expected at this point. Those charged with keeping our souls, keeping the peace, keeping us safe are more concerned with keeping things quiet, with keeping power.
And that is the take away from The Keepers. It’s the feeling of biting your bottom lip as your mouth forms a hard eff sound and the fury of your words as you curse out everyone that defends the abusers or blames the victims. It’s the anger, confusion and frustration of being faced with injustice. It is corruption, and resilience in the face of it. In light of Baltimore’s most recent pains, in deference to Black Lives Matter, The Keepers is timely. It shows the malice in the misuse of vulnerable people. It is a warning to hear the cries of the outraged people. It is a reminder to keep fighting, stay strong and make them hear our voices.