Chances are you’ve seen the comically bad trailer for Drew Peterson: Untouchable. Perhaps you’re a regular Lifetime viewer, or you’re familiar with the real-life case and curiosity led you to research the movie. I suspect the majority of viewers who tune in Saturday night for the movie’s premiere are hoping to see Rob Lowe rise to Nicolas Cage’s level of ironic acting. That was, at least, the reason I volunteered to review it.
Drew Peterson: Untouchable, adapted from Joseph Hosey’s nonfiction book, Fatal Vows, is aided in no small part by Lowe’s goofball grey-haired makeover as wife-killer Drew Peterson (is that Tom Cruise’s wig from Collateral?). “I’m untouchable, bitch,” he says flatly to suspicious neighbor Karen (Catherine Dent) in Bolingbrook, Illinois, after threatening her by opening and closing her garage door several times.
Plainly, this is not the tragic story based on real events about a pair of women brutalized by the controlling man with whom they shared a bed, house, and children. This is the story about that controlling man, his supposed charm and charisma, and his startling arrogance. Like other Lifetime movies about bad and unbelievably persuasive men, this one focuses on the horror of the man’s performance, framed by our knowledge that he has since been indicted and now awaits trial for murder.
That’s not to say the movie is only about Drew Peterson. In the middle act, Kaley Cuoco appears as Drew’s naïve and doomed fourth bride Stacey, who gradually morphs into a confused and terrified prisoner of a marriage. But the shifting point of view—between Drew, Stacey, neighbor Karen, and “the media”—makes an incoherent mess out of the events, reducing the movie to a kind of “greatest hits” clip package of Drew’s most outrageous moments.
Just so, the film opens on Drew and a television interviewer, whose initial questions lead to answers revealing his quirky affect and inflated ego. Already suspected of killing his third wife Kathleen Savio (Cara Buono), Peterson is focused on squashing gossip that he might appear in Playgirl magazine rather than joining the search for his currently missing fourth wife. He insists she left him for another man because “it was that time of the month.” The scene draws a clear picture of Peterson’s conceit and boorishness, and also just how bizarre the casting of Rob Lowe is.
From here the film flashes back to Peterson in bed with Kathleen. When their young son walks in on them, rather than send the boy out, Peterson rises from the bed in the nude to speak to the mortified boy, insisting he needs to understand exactly why he should always knock before entering. Only the first of the film’s many “I can’t believe they just did that” scenes, the moment establishes Peterson’s possessiveness, rendered all the more disturbing because he gets territorial with his own son.
This is pretty much the limit of the film’s speculation regarding Peterson’s motives or pathology, however. It cuts quickly from scene to scene, spending just enough time to set up all the pieces of the mystery without drawing conclusions about Peterson or his wives. Kathleen seems to be perpetually hysterical, and Stacey looks like she’s 16. Scenes where Peterson arrests a man while on duty at Stacey’s place of employment, or rides to see her on his motorcycle, reinforce his sense of macho entitlement. Yet despite all this attention to Peterson’s experiences, Lowe’s caricature is never revelatory, just weird.
Adding insult to injury, this weirdness isn’t particularly entertaining or suspenseful. Once Stacey goes unceremoniously to her fate off-screen and Peterson begins complaining about the reporters on his lawn (replicating the scenes replayed so often on cable news in 2007). His upset only seems an indication of his guilt, as does a kind of crimes clean-up scene. Here he’s joined by his stepbrother Glenn (William Mapother), who provides the damning evidence against Peterson that leads to his arrest. Yet the movie continues to underscore Drew’s eccentricities in its own sensationalist way, mining as much entertainment as possible out of his sideshow act behaviors. He unsuccessfully tries to pick up a reporter on his lawn. He later refers to his handcuffs as “bling.”
Although Lowe expressed doubts in an AP interview about his ability to play the role, the movie benefits from his unconventional take on the ex-police sergeant. He squints and chuckles, his face twisted into an expression halfway between a smile and a grimace, and his pained efforts to affect the Chicago-accented Peterson sometimes sound like an impression of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. The performance and the script’s stretches (stick around for Peterson’s climactic strip search) are less convincing than campy.