July 26, 2009. Early afternoon. Frantic calls are coming into 911, which go on to New York State Police dispatch. Someone is driving a van in the wrong direction on the Taconic. Witnesses say the car, which is going very fast, is being driven with authority. The person is not changing lanes or weaving. Minutes later, an off-duty NYPD cop is on the scene of the accident, one of the worst in New York history; he confirms "fatalities." Then, viewers see the photos -- including one of the driver, Schuler, who has tumbled out of the car onto the feet of two men who rush to open the door.
And so ends this film, which includes a meticulous account of who Schuler was, as well as why her greatest champions, husband, Daniel, and sister-in-law, Jay Schuler have continued their seemingly quixotic efforts to exonerate her. The filmmaker, Liz Garbus ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"), approached both six months after the accident, and she confirmed recently to Newsday that they were paid a "stipend" to participate, as were members of the Bastardi family. (Schuler's brother, Warren Hance, and his wife, Jackie, did not cooperate.)
The film enlists experts and childhood friends to build a psychological portrait of Diane, whose mother abandoned her family when she was 9. Per the experts, Diane may have compensated for the loss by becoming a perfectionist mom with control issues.
MY SAY There's an understandable human impulse to fill tragic voids with reasonable answers that lead to tidy conclusions -- an impulse shared by good documentary producers like Garbus. But when Garbus doesn't find the surprising answers she's looking for -- probably because this already has been so thoroughly covered in these pages -- she begins turning to dispassionate experts (such as Harold J. Bursztajn, a Harvard forensic psychiatrist), who offer their own ruminations about Schuler's actions.
It's here that the film stalls. There is nowhere else to go, nothing left to say, because one hard, cold fact inconveniently refuses to budge: Schuler consumed the equivalent of 10 alcoholic drinks and smoked a large quantity of pot that day. Why did she do this? Honestly, does it really matter? Watching the documentary left me feeling this tragedy will never go away.
BOTTOM LINE It's an exhaustive and exhausting film, but Garbus finds nothing that will change minds or reverse conclusions. The tragic void remains.