American Crime Story A Random Killing review

This week’s American Crime Story review takes a look at the latest episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “A Random Killing.” Spoilers follow.

The Victims

It’s May 1997, and the murder of Gianni Versace is is still three months away. Versace may still be alive in the timeframe of this episode, but he’s absent here – off somewhere living his life, still blissfully unaware that Andrew Cunanan is weeks away from destroying it all.

It’s fitting that since episode 3, “A Random Killing,” is the first Versace-less episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, it’s also the first episode of the season that feels drastically different. As this show continues to tick backwards, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, the timeline shifts, altering itself, ever-changing. Gone are the brightly-lit beaches and pastel colored buildings of Miami Beach. In its place are the affluent suburbs of Chicago, where Cunanan has brought his own brand of destruction.

“A Random Killing” opens with a chilling, horror-movie-tinged opening sequence in which Home Shopping Network saleswoman Marilyn Miglin returns home from a business trip and quickly discovers something is very wrong. Her husband Lee was supposed to pick her up at the airport – but he never arrived. Marilyn takes a cab home, and the tension builds, and builds, and builds, to a point where it feels as if the episode will burst. Marilyn’s affluent row home seems haunted, or cursed, when she steps through the door. It’s too quiet, too barren. Things that might be perfectly mundane under normal circumstances, like a pint of ice cream left out on a kitchen counter, suddenly take on an ominous feel. Soon, neighbors and police have arrived, and what they discover is enough to make a neighbor let out a blood-curdling scream: Lee Miglin has been brutally murdered.

He’s not the only victim who loses his life at the hands of Andrew Cunanan. Later, we see Cunanan gun down William Reese, a caretaker at a Civil War cemetery. While this act is carried out on the spur of the moment – Andrew shoots Reese almost as an afterthought – the title of the episode indicates only one of these killings is random, and yet when that distinction comes up, it’s applied to the murder of Lee Miglin, not William Reese. The devil is in the details.

“I Could Almost Be”

The Andrew Cunanan at the center of “A Random Killing” is a completely different Cunanan than we’ve seen in previous episodes. At the end of last week’s episode, “Manhunt,” Cunanan’s mask of sanity began to slip as he rattled off a laundry list of all the different phony personalities he’s used throughout his life. Here, the smooth, fast-talking con artist is lying dormant while the cold, calculated predator is on full display. Andrew is on the run here – he later mentions he’s already killed two people very close to him, and later still police mention that a stolen vehicle Andrew was driving was “linked to the homicide of Jeff Trail.” Remember that name.

While we have yet to witness these two previous murders Andrew mentions, it’s clear that he’s unhinged. He’s fleeing for his life, and not really sure where to go. He ends up at the home of the wealthy Lee Miglin, a man who has seemingly be happily married for years, with a grown son – yet he’s also a man who is also hiding a secret.

Secret lives are a big theme of this season of American Crime Story, and just as Andrew has spent his entire life trying to pretend he was someone else, so, too, has Lee Miglin. The episode flashes back a week before his murder, and we see that Lee and his wife Marilyn are, indeed, happily married…yet Lee is struggling. He kneels in the homemade chapel he has tucked away in his large house, and swears to God that he tries, he really tries, to fight his urges. But it’s no use.

When Lee receives a late-night phone call from Andrew Cunanan, just as Marilyn is about to go out of town, Lee gives in to his urges, and gives Andrew permission to come over. When Andrew arrives, he skips the pleasantrees. He’s not trying to impress Lee, or lure him. Lee, seemingly oblivious to this, embraces Andrew. He wants to be loved by this young man, whom we later learn had worked as a male escort for Lee. “I’m not a fool,” Lee says, “I know it’s not real.” But he wants it to be real. He wants it to be real just as Andrew wants his constant lies about his own success to be real. Andrew senses the weakness in Lee, and like any sociopath, decides to exploit it. There’s a quick moment where Andrew has a gun raised at Lee’s back, ready to cut the elderly man down. Yet he hesitates – not out of sympathy, but rather because he realizes he can draw Lee Miglin’s death out; change it from a quick, cold slaying into a calculated act of torture. He passionately kisses Lee, then says, “You’ve never been kissed like that before, have you?”

Befuddled and under Andrew’s romantic spell, Lee whimpers that Andrew isn’t like the other escorts. “I could almost be a husband,” Andrew says, “or a partner. I could almost be. I really could…almost.”

Almost.

What follows is a horrifying sequence in which Andrew wraps Lee’s head in tape – a call-back to last week’s episode, where Andrew did the same thing with a John. From here, Andrew brutally murders lee, taunting him as he does so, telling the dying man that he’s going to dress his corpse in women’s panties and leave gay porn strewn around his corpse. “I want the world to see the great Lee Miglin is a sissy,” Andrew snarls, then adds: “What terrifies you more: death, or being disgraced?”

It’s a chilling sequence, and if the previous two episodes haven’t already destroyed any sort of empathy you might have for Andrew Cunanan as a character, surely this moment will do the trick (note: Andrew’s actions get even worse in the next two episodes, so be warned).

A Random Killing

I’m still having trouble accepting the backwards narrative of The Assassination of Gianni Versace. As the show unfolds, it becomes increasingly unclear as to why Ryan Murphy and company chose to approach this story this way. Perhaps it’s meant to emulate the way a detective investigating the murder of Versace might uncover the story: starting at the end, and working their way back. Perhaps. Yet this approach remains more distracting than innovative.

What continues to make Versace work, however, are the performances, and the direction. Darren Criss’ work as Cunanan remains stunning, even if Cunanan as a character grows more and more repulsive. Criss’ ability to slip from charming to terrifying is no easy feat, yet the actor handles this, and the other intricacies of the part, masterfully.

This week’s guest stars turn in stellar work as well. Mike Farrell, as the doomed Lee Miglin, is inherently sympathetic, making his murder all the more heart wrenching. Scenes showing Lee struggling to fight his sexual urges are handled deftly by Farrell, and the way the actor reacts to his wife telling him she always enjoys his company, seeming both touched and surprised, is one of the episode’s best moments.

The always-amazing Judith Light, as Lee’s wife Marilyn, gets the bulk of the heavy emotional lifting here, and Light doesn’t fail to disappoint. Moments after Lee’s murder is uncovered, Light’s Marilyn springs into action, taking stock of all the items Andrew stole from the house. She fights to remain strong, yet breaks down ever-so-briefly near the episode’s conclusion. This momentary sign of weakness is quickly replaced by fury. Marilyn makes it abundantly clear that everyone, including the police, whom she has influence over thanks to her wealth, are to treat Lee’s murder as a random killing. She refuses to let anyone claim that Lee knew his murderer, because she doesn’t want her husband’s name dragged through the mud. The personal items, and Lee’s life, are the only things Marilyn says she’ll allow Andrew to steal from her. “He won’t steal my good name,” she says.

There is a question of propriety here. The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not a documentary, and as a result, it’s free to play fast and loose with the facts. Yet the real Miglin family still maintains to this day that the murder was random, and that Lee had no connection to his killer. Whether or not it is in good taste for Versace to ignore this is a question the viewer has to ask themselves, and about which they should draw their own conclusions.

Like the previous two episodes, the direction in “A Random Killing” is the real show-stopper. Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton fills the episode with ominous, low-angles, the camera pointing up, warping the image above. This is an overall horrifying episode, and the first few minutes, with Marilyn wandering around her silent home, give most modern horror movies a run for their money. A real-life friend of the Miglins who went to the Miglin residence after Marilyn came home, later said, “There was a horrible feeling in the house,” and Horder-Payton is able to portray that horrible feeling through the silent, unsettling way the cameras move about the home. That “terrible feeling” starts the episode, and it doesn’t let up until the credits roll. By then, Andrew has murdered one more person, and is on the run. His next stop, as we know from last week’s episode, will be Miami. That’s not our next stop, however. We’ve already been there. We’re going backwards. Next week, we’ll learn the events that lead Andrew to Lee’s doorstep. It won’t be pleasant.

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