4:49 PM EST, January 16, 2012
It's rare that you can say a piece of television is inevitable. But throughout the media circus following the disappearance of Stacy Peterson, the notion that there would be a Drew Peterson Lifetime movie was about as close to a sure thing as you could get.
And now, while the ex-Bolingbrook cop awaits trial for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, that movie is here, premiering on the female-focused cable channel Saturday (7 p.m. CDT).
There are surprises in "Drew Peterson: Untouchable," beginning with the choice of Rob Lowe to play the man. Peterson evoked many emotions during his odd and troubling run in the public eye between fourth wife Stacy Peterson's disappearance in October 2007 and his arrest in May 2009, but comparisons to an almost blindlingly handsome actor were not among them.
What's also surprising, given the pending court case and our litigious society, is how strongly the movie suggests Peterson's complicity in both cases.
Based on former Joliet Herald-News reporter Joseph Hosey's 2008 nonfiction book "Fatal Vows: The Tragic Wives of Sgt. Drew Peterson," the film gives us, as accepted and damning facts, many of what are presumed to be the key pieces of evidence against Peterson. Although it never shows the cop committing a crime, it does have him smile knowingly on the porch, for instance, while he waits for Savio's body to be discovered.
But what's perhaps most surprising is that if you take it on its own, very limited terms, the movie kind of works. You come to this prepared to laugh, because of Lowe, because of Lifetime, because of what our public reaction to Peterson came to be. But despite a lurid trailer that made the rounds, this is no piece of inadvertent high camp.
What was horrible about the Peterson saga was the way the man's public buffoonery -- the fifth fiancee, the proposed radio-show dating contest, the Blagojevich-like need to appear on TV -- threatened to obliterate the memories of two women. Peterson pulled on clown shoes, and the absent mothers of four children slid into the background.
But Lifetime, by and large, makes movies for women, about women -- cautionary tales about loving toxic men and enduring bad things that happen to kids.
While "Untouchable" will not change the course of cinema, it is a story that spells "cautionary" in boldface and all-caps. There is a real sense of menace and impending doom in watching Stacy Peterson try to turn her initial, lovestruck phase into a life with this controlling man.
And by casting strong actors as Savio (Cara Buono) and Stacy Peterson (Kaley Cuoco), the film puts at least some of Peterson story's focus back on them -- and, later, on the fictionalized version of the female neighbor and friend who has worked to keep Stacy's memory alive.
Made doughy in the mid-section and on the face, Lowe, vocally, seems to be channeling Dennis Franz (who probably would have been the ideal choice). Doing a credible Chicago accent, he is surprisingly serviceable as a version of Peterson, mostly because he takes his character's point of view, warped as it sometimes is, seriously. There are shades of the confoundingly unemotional, weirdly self-confident and inappropriately jokey Drew Peterson we know from news-media appearances, but Lowe's is a slicker, steelier take on such a man.
Directed by Mikael Salomon, a talented Danish cinematographer ("The Abyss," "Backdraft") who has spent much of the last decade directing for television, "Untouchable" doesn't miss an opportunity to have its title character lay on the Snidely Whiplash charm. The mustache they put Lowe in isn't long enough to twirl, but the gesture is implicit as we witness his seduction of the very young Stacy, even sneaking her into the suburban house he shares with Savio and their children.
The marriage to Savio is on its last legs as the movie opens because, Teena Booth's script suggests, the rampantly sexist Peterson has tired of her aging body and of domesticity. As the divorce that will cost Peterson dearly nears, about all that's left for Savio to do is deliver the made-for-Lifetime line to her successor: "I feel sorry for you. You actually believe he's a catch. I used to be you, and one day you'll be me."
Stacy Peterson had a troubled upbringing -- more so than even this movie gets across, according to news accounts -- and why she might be attracted to a much older man offering apparent stability is clear. But on his end, the marriage plummets quickly from him preening about landing someone another character calls "luscious" to displays of intense, irrational jealousy.
After Stacy Peterson goes missing, the movie devolves into a re-enactment of the sideshow many of us remember, and it loses its heart. Clips of Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper, among others, remind us of how much attention this got, and ground it in some reality. But the earlier material, suggesting what life might have been like for Peterson's wives, is what makes this more than just routine, women-in-peril fare.
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