The Wall Street Journal

‘Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio’ Review:
Unvarnished Stories of the Lost

By John Anderson
July 20, 2017 12:41 p.m. ET

From Jack the Ripper on down through the dank, dismal history of serial murder, the perpetrators always seem to have their macabre signatures and twisted proclivities while their victims seem sadly the same: anonymous members of an underclass; underprivileged people who’ll go largely unmissed. Ordinarily, the dead are women murdered by men. Often enough, they’re prostitutes. ( Aileen Wuornos, a notable exception to the gender rule, was a prostitute.) In our time, the still-at-large Gilgo Beach Killer may have left as many as 17 women dead on Long Island. Who besides their mothers can name one?

It’s a credit to “Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio,” directed by the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated Joe Berlinger, that the women of the title are afforded actual identities. They are memorable, in their way—unseen characters in the drama despite the unfortunate commonalities that link them all together. One can hope that all those interconnecting facts will lead to a solution over the next eight weeks, though after watching the first three episodes—each of which was more intense that the last—this viewer wasn’t even clear that a serial killer is at work. Not a human one, at any rate: “The real killer here,” says public health nurse Lisa Roberts, “is probably opiates.”

One suspects Mr. Berlinger knew as much. A key figure in the documentary renaissance of the 1990s, the New York-based director spent the better part of two decades with filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky on the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which helped resolve the scandalous and allegedly “satanic” West Memphis Three murder case in evangelical Arkansas. (Mr. Sinofsky died in 2015.) In many ways, “Gone” provides him familiar territory: Chillicothe is referred to as “quintessential small-town America,” and maybe it is, but it has an intractable underclass, is scarred by unemployment and poverty and—like many similarly afflicted places in America—is plagued by a heroin epidemic born of opiate abuse. All the women who’ve been victimized in Chillicothe have been involved in the drug trade, and prostitution, and most got into heroin through a reliance on pain medication. They all have children. And mourning families. And, as viewers will learn, the same circle of acquaintances.

What have the police made of all this? Not much, as Mr. Berlinger very diplomatically points out, as he goes about his own investigation, assisted by forensic intelligence analyst Angela Clemente (who appeared in Mr. Berlinger’s 2014 “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger). The two are joined a bit later by former FBI profiler Steve Bongardt, and the trio makes efforts to figure out why a city of about 22,000 people could have so many unsolved deaths and disappearances in only an 18-month period, beginning in 2014.

One death, that of Shasta Himelrick, has been ruled a suicide, but why, Ms. Clemente asks very sensibly, would a strong swimmer throw herself off a bridge into freezing water at the end of December? (Especially, she implies, when there are so many drugs around to make the task more pleasant.) One victim is shot; several are discovered in water. But as the team admits to itself, nothing suggests the profile of a psychopath. When the news hits that a real serial murderer, Neal Falls, has been shot and killed by a woman he’s attacked in nearby West Virginia, his methodology is examined, and what’s made clear to the viewer is that the Chillicothe events are somewhere outside the criminology textbooks.

It is perhaps predictable that the families of the victims would complain of police incompetence and worse, but there are also signs that the efforts of the various investigators have lacked a certain, shall we say, urgency. “I can’t know everything,” says Chillicothe Sgt. Lucas Hansen, and no he can’t. Individually, the officers seem forthcoming: Chillicothe Detective Bud Lytle, for instance, is more than happy to share information and appear on camera with Mr. Berlinger, but he’s never really pressed (not during episodes 1-3, at least) about the families’ accusations.

As whodunits go, “Gone” is not “Law & Order.” It’s untidy, and its people are as erratic as its facts. Explaining why he’s undertaking a task at which the police have thus far failed, Mr. Berlinger says, “a camera can open doors.” That’s true. But a camera can also change behavior, and a viewer can’t help wondering how much the characters in the Chillicothe drama are influenced by the presence of Mr. Berlinger and his team, how much is natural and unguarded and how much is pure performance. The Chillicothe case has attracted cameras before, and the sense is that the clock was ticking. Given the choice, Mr. Berlinger would likely have spent more time among the people there, and gotten them more at ease.

Class is an unavoidable issue here and, to his credit, Mr. Berlinger doesn’t try to avoid it. “Gone” travels between the earthy environs of Chillicothe and Mr. Berlinger’s home base, the stylish offices of Radical Media in New York. The contrast isn’t exactly jarring, but it’s impossible to ignore. “Coming to this region has been an eye-opener for me,” Mr. Berlinger tells one of the locals, and he’s not talking only about the opioid crisis and its insidious side effects. He’s talking about the way of life, the culture. It’s an honest thing to say. It’s an uncomfortable way to feel.

The debut episode of “Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio” is, like many an opening chapter of anything, less electrifying than what is to follow, since it needs to establish people, dates, stories and characters. Mr. Berlinger is not the most confident narrator, and he takes some getting used to. But by episode 2 “Gone” is out of the gate and the viewer, we suspect, fully engaged. I, for one, will be tuning in for episodes 4-8 because “Gone” is that genuinely rare thing on TV: unpredictable.