Drew Peterson: Untouchable

Drew Peterson: Untouchable

Drew Peterson: Untouchable debuts tonight on Lifetime at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Leading up the airing of Drew Peterson: Untouchable, Lifetime has put out campy bait for this based-on-actual-events movie. First, there was the inexplicable casting of Rob Lowe as the titular suburban Chicago police officer. Then the network began airing a commercial that featured a menacing Lowe growling “I’m untouchable, bitch,” towards a terrorized woman. But, ultimately, despite a few campy moments, Untouchable is a typical, paint-by-numbers Lifetime movie, a cautionary tale of an abusive, controlling man and the women he terrorized. Still, this direction is all for the best no matter the quality; after all, there’s nothing funny about domestic abuse and potential double murder. Besides, no take on the story, no matter how much artistic license is taken, could match the surreal twists and turns the actual Drew Peterson saga has taken. And it's partly because of this that the movie can't hold up, instead becoming another poorly made entry that fails to distinguish itself from other poorly made entries in Lifetime's damsel-in-distress library. 

The movie follows Peterson’s relationship with young Stacy Cales (The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco), whom he meets, woos, and starts a relationship with while still married to third wife Kathleen Savio (Mad Men’s Cara Buono) with whom Peterson has a tumultuous, even violent relationship. After having separated from Savio, Peterson shacks up with Stacy and, before long, Savio winds up dead in an empty bathtub, originally ruled an accidental death. Peterson and Cales marry and have children while also caring for the children Peterson had with Savio. As the relationship unfolds, Peterson slowly reveals himself as a jealous, manipulative, and abusive (both emotionally and physically) husband who constantly threatens Stacy. Stacy, in turn, takes emotional refuge with neighbor Karen (Catherine Dent of The Shield) but before long, Stacy winds up missing. Karen and Peterson’s family lead the charge, fully believing the abusive Peterson is the cause of her disappearance while Peterson claims Stacy has simply run off with another man. Not long after Stacy’s disappearance, officials reopen the case of Savio’s death due to prodding from Savio’s family, and reclassify her death as a homicide with Peterson the number one suspect.

The film has a curious pedigree: based on the book Fatal Vows, written by journalist Joseph Hosey who covered the case for suburban Chicago newspaper Joliet Herald-News; directed by Mikael Salomon (director of photography on films such as The Abyss and Backdraft before launching into a television director career); and adapted for television by Teena Booth who wrote another Lifetime movie known for its sensationalistic topic, Pregnancy Pact. Though the movie never explicitly shows Peterson committing the murders, it has plenty of scenes that do explicitly imply his guilt. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the movie’s original title was Ladykiller: The Drew Peterson Story.

The cast also has a curious pedigree, one that seems more worthy of the rote script it’s given to work with. For his part, Lowe seems to relish playing such a despicable villain, leering about while dropping lurid insults in a mock, not completely terrible and somewhat subtle Chicago accent, squinting above his moustache and mocking smile. What little camp there is in the movie comes from the misogynistic mutterings Lowe slings, especially his constant references to menstrual cycles as explanations for his wives’ behavior. And if there's one aspect of this whole mess that deserves mocking, it's Peterson and his behavior. For all the head-scratching surrounding the casting, Lowe at least comes close to living up to expectations even if the rest of the movie collapses around him.

Cuoco acquits herself as Stacy Peterson, portraying Stacy as a love-blinded young woman who ignores the warnings of her loved ones but slowly catches on to her husband’s abusive traits and begins to fear for her life. Dent is given a meaty role as Karen who becomes a confidant for Stacy, leading the charge against Drew once Stacy disappears, and she does what she can with it. Karen is a composite character of one of Stacy’s real-life neighbor and other friends and family, something of a Greek chorus of common sense telling Stacy to get the hell out of the bad situation she’s in.

But the portrayal of Peterson’s third wife, Savio, is particularly distressing. She’s painted as a shrill, vengeful woman, a stereotypical scorned harpie who seems to have it out for her husband. Meanwhile, though Peterson’s adultery is hardly forgivable, he’s still portrayed in a fairly positive light, almost as a victim to Savio’s erratic behavior. With the exception of one scene, in which Peterson locks her in a jail cell during an office holiday party as a joke-turned-power-play, there are few hints as to the abuse he was accused of inflicting on Savio. It’s a disorienting point-of-view, particularly since the movie later makes no bones about portraying Peterson as an abusive, manipulative asshole.

If there’s one thing the movie does well, it’s capturing Peterson’s bizarre behavior after Stacy’s disappearance — bizarre public appearances like the “Win a date with Drew” radio conterst, mugging for the cameras, his engagement to his potential fifth wife while still technically married to the missing Stacy — all actually happened. But it was behavior that served as a smokescreen for Peterson, a circus that diverted attention away from the murder Peterson has been accused of and the disappearance he’s suspected in. The movie, again to its credit, never delves to far into the media circus, instead choosing to keep its focus on Stacy’s disappearance and, to a lesser extent, Savio’s murder, mainly through Karen’s crusading efforts alongside Stacy’s sister.

But even what the movie does right is not nearly enough to make it good. It never becomes the campy farce its promotional materials paint it as and as a straight-forward entry into the long list of Lifetime movies, it still falls well short of being watchable thanks to uneven perspective and lackluster storytelling. Given the ridiculous nature of the real life events in the case, going completely camp would be the only way the film could raise itself above being “just another Lifetime movie.” And yet even that would have been problematic given the case is still ongoing. There’s been no conclusion to either the Savio case or Stacy’s disappearance and, therefore, no distance from those real-life events that would make a campy take even remotely appropriate. Yes, there's plenty in Peterson's behavior to be mocked, but that's simply a side note to the movie's main focus. The movie ends with Peterson's 2009 arrest for the murder of Savio, a charge that he’s still awaiting trial for almost three years later. With no resolution currently in sight here in real life, the movie, for all its implications of Peterson’s guilt, can’t even offer emotional closure for the viewers, just another problem to add to the pile.

Stray Observations

  • In my previous job before coming to The A.V. Club, I covered the Peterson case and its ins-and-outs for close to three years. Yes, it has been that surreal. For those looking for a primer, The Bolingbrook Reporter has a comprehensive timeline of the Peterson saga up through October 2008 and the Chicago Tribune has one related to the Stacy Peterson disappearance.
  • Yes, Peterson was really contacted by HBO to work on their Cathouse series. A few other sensationalistic turns in the case that weren’t covered by the movie include a fistfight, Peterson putting his motorcycle on eBay to raise legal funds, and a Chicago TV station’s mock trial. Like I said, the twists and turns of the actual case fall under the “truth is stranger than fiction” category.
  • Rob Lowe is far too handsome to play Peterson who, in reality, much more closely resembles the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. In fact, now that he's turned into a football rumor mill, maybe we can finally get from Lowe why he chose to take this role in the first place. 
  • A few of Lowe’s gross one-liners as Peterson: “She’s putting her scent out there.” "Job is the word, now put blow in front of it."“Been a long time since I banged a girl in the bathroom.”

More TV Club