Citizen Sleuth Review: A Compelling, Thrilling Documentary That Flips The True Crime Script [SXSW 2023]

"Citizen Sleuth" is a darkly funny, engaging, and thrilling documentary about a true crime podcast that has all the fascinating twists and turns of true crime, while flipping the script and focusing on the voice behind the podcast. The documentary chronicles not a tragic death, but the rise and fall of a podcast dedicated to it, and the complicated ways its host became trapped in her own narrative.

The film deals with the tragic death of 20-year-old Jaleayah Davis in West Virginia back in 2011, a death that was ruled accidental but had some bizarre circumstances that gave rise to rumors about police corruption and lies from Davis' friends the night of her death. It is in these rumors that the true crime podcast, "Mile Marker 181" (after the final resting place of Davis' car) was born.

"Citizen Sleuth" follows the creator of "Mile Marker 181," Emily Nestor, as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, sees her podcast skyrocket in popularity, and eventually sees her world come crashing down.

Director Chris Kasick employs the same visual language of true crime for "Citizen Sleuth," with a moody, Philip Glass-inspired score and long, drawn-out establishing drone shots to create tension. This helps highlight the drama of the subject matter and all the twists and turns the story takes. 

Rather than just focusing on the death of Jaleayah Davis and the investigation, the documentary focuses squarely on Nestor investigating it, and also promoting her rising podcast at conventions and panels around town. The result is a fascinating look at the way podcasters who start on the sidelines of these big stories end up becoming intricately linked to their narratives.

A thrilling story

While the tragedy that birthed the podcast is horrible, the movie also has a darkly funny sense of humor. A lot of it comes from the subject, Emily Nestor herself, who acts like a mockumentary protagonist more than the Clarice Sterling detective she pictures herself as. Nestor is engrossing and hilarious, but she is also somehow both self-aware and oblivious to what she is doing. She asks herself important questions like whether it's fine to advertise on a podcast about a tragedy, and then struggles to come up with answers. Likewise, she doesn't seem to see a problem with her absolute lack of journalistic experience. 

This is the crux of "Citizen Sleuth," as it explores how these tragedies affect the people who make true crime, and in turn how they impact the subjects of their documentaries. At its best, the film interrogates the ripple effects Nestor's work has on herself, on the victim's family, and on the suspects. 

To the credit of the documentary, it doesn't set out to just mock Nestor's efforts or her podcast, nor does it follow it as completely true and valid. Instead, it shows why people would find Emily entertaining and the story thrilling (like the genre at large) before warning of the perils of the format. Like many podcasts and shows, Emily sees hers as a social crusade and a chance to get justice, but the film shows why that is a foolish and dangerous endeavor that quickly spirals out of control. 

"Citizen Sleuth" is a rare documentary that actually has a full character arc, particularly one that happens organically throughout the course of the film. We see the rise and fall of Emily Nestor, and her growth through the process of investigating a death. It is as fascinating to watch as the true crime shows that inspired Nestor. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10