True crime junkies may be familiar with the story of Sante and Kenny Kimes, a mother-son grifting duo that stole houses and cars, kept human slaves (more on that later) and murdered a handful of people before a grand theft auto charge took them down in the late 90s. If you don't know who they are, you're in luck! The "ripped from the headlines" TV movie vogue had hit it's height at this point, and there's a few surprisingly well made movies that tell their story. However, I say fuck those movies. As always, we're here to celebrate the shining of a far crazier diamond. "A Little Thing Called Murder" is a charming, campy, and horrifying portrait of evil people doing inexplicable things.
The movie kicks off with a fun little montage of people associated with the Kimes family, all baffled by the crimes they committed. The off-the-cuff interview style and slightly shaky camera made me think of a Christopher Guest movie about a batshit floozy that went too far. (Note: Someone with connections should ask Christopher Guest to remake House of Yes.) We then cut to sepia-toned musical sequence where a rumpshakin' Elizabeth Taylor clone walks down the street, winks over the top of her sunglasses, and steals a car from a dealership by hopping in the drivers seat and asking for the keys. Meet Sante Kimes!
Sante is a social climber who is obsessed with money, maintaining her looks, and fucking over everyone in her path in order to remain the queen of her insane fantasy kingdom. We first meet her through the eyes of her friend Beverly, who treats Sante more like a bottle rocket then an acquaintance- point her at a bitchy clerk or cheating spouse, light the fuse, and get away. She spends the first 20 minutes of the movie either chewing on the scenery or sweettalking people out of arresting her. While it's a pleasure to watch Sante get her bitch on versus the world at large, it's clear that there's more going on here then a forceful personality. Bev notices things- Sante pocketing saltshakers at a country club, the way the maids flinch when she walks by -but chooses not to speak up. Bev assures us that everyone around Sante isn't blind and stupid, but it's just easier to believe her lies then to call her on them. This is plausible. Most people want to believe that they're made of Keilor-grade moral fiber. But when it comes down to it, it's easier to look away when a friend shoplifts then to call over store security. Money and confidence can help you get away with some really crazy shit. Sante throws a hell of a party, and as long as you're on her good side, you tend to benefit from her sociopathy.
However, there are some crimes that are a little too big to ignore. Human slavery is a very real issue in America, but it's difficult to track and prosecute. At the time of this movie, only 2 private citizens had been successfully prosecuted for slavery since it was outlawed, and one of those people is Sante Kimes. We learn that Bev finally snapped when one of Sante's maids took her aside, confided that she was being kept against her will and beaten, and begged for her freedom. The ensuing trial reveals that the Kimes have a habit of picking up young Mexican women with the promise of money and citizenship, then imprison them and torture them until they manage to get away. Sante's common-law husband drops a dime on her to avoid jail time, and she goes away for 4 years.
Sante's family reacts to her imprisonment with relief. Particularly relieved is Kenny Kimes, Sante's son from a previous relationship. To call Sante's relationship with Kenny "creepy" does a great disservice to well-meaning creepy people everywhere. It's clear from the beginning that Sante is intent on using her son as a pawn in her crazy games. After a Nanny reads "The Boy That Cried Wolf" to Kenny, Sante physically assaults her and tells her to never teach her kids about morals again. (Good thing she didn't read "The Swan That Kept Human Slaves" to Kenny, or she would have been another notch on Sante's murder-stick.) When Sante is almost arrested for shoplifting, she gets out of it by smacking the shit out of Kenny and claiming that the store keeper assaulted her son. Later, she apologizes and lets him pinch her as retribution for bitch-smacking him out of a Sears. They're constantly uncomfortably close, hugging and kissing and adding fuel to the incest rumors that make this story so damn icky. (Well, that and the murder thing). In fact, the only time Kenny ever gets close to a woman who isn't his mom is when his mom talks a stewardess into sleeping with him. The following scene where he cheerfully expounds on his mom's abilities to get him laid is guaranteed to make your skin crawl. Whether Sante genuinely loves her son or is just very good at manipulating him is a question this movie is never quite ready to answer. It is, however, constantly ready to reassure us that whatever was going on there was CREEPY AS BALLS.
Sante comes back from jail, dead set on never going back. She continues to rely on her sleazy faux-hubby, but he is actually not awesome at the whole crime thing. They run a couple of small-time scams (fake checks, fake buisnesses, etc) and end up having to murder their overly-curious lawyer. Bummer for Sante. Things get worse when faux-hubby dies of a heart attack. He never married Sante because he was confident that he'd end up dead or broke within a year of the wedding, which is actually a fair point. This leaves Sante with no legal claim to her home or the money she's been so enjoying over the past 20 years. But now he's dead anyway, so Sante needs a new crimin' buddy. Since he's the most vulnerable to Sante's creepy charms, it will fall to Kenny to drop out of school and take over the family business. In my favorite scene, she picks Kenny up from college and tells him his father's in the backseat. Pan back to reveal an urn. Wackity-shmackity-doo!
Sante and Kenny team up to hide the death of the patriarch from the world until they can forge a new will and access enough money to keep them afloat. Of course, this progresses into another murder, a banker who had the unfortunate luck of being in charge of the Kimes's offshore bank accounts. Sante and Kenny drown him in a bathtub, then stuff him in a chest and send him out to sea. From there it's a rollercoaster ride of fraud, theft, and running from the law. it isn't hard for Sante to talk people into helping her, and the creepy muscle provided by her son is enough to silence most objection.
The film hits it's climax at the case that made the Kimes famous- the murder of socialite Irene Silverman. I won't recount this at great length, as it's been done before. I will say the film did a fine job of recounting this, giving us the bare bones of the crime while still allowing the actors a few scenes to shine. Long story short, Kenny and Sante killed an old woman in New York to try and steal her mansion, and it was the one crime they couldn't talk their way out of. We kind of lose steam near the end. The film milks a little more fun out of Sante's courtroom antics, and ends on a somber note that allows us to pity Kenny and Sante while being repulsed by their 10 year spree of murder and mayhem. And the fact that I got to type that sentence should tell you why this is my favorite Lifetime movie in a good long time.
Solid 20. There was nothing that was not awesome about this movie. It's the miracle baby of John Waters and Agatha Christie with a little bit of John Walsh thrown in for good measure.
Star Power: 7
10 of the awesome points up there belong in Judy Davis's pocket. Trashy made-for-TV movies can be real career killers, or at least grudging admissions that a career is dead. This often leaves the acting done in these films by established, talented people with a little to be desired. Ms. Davis defies this by going for broke with her portrayal of Sante. She obviously has a ball with the camp weirdness of the script, taking a clunky ripped-from-the-headlines script and elevating it to another level. Also notable for fans of Dead Like Me: George's mom and DOLORES HERBIG GETTING THINGS DONE. YES!
Seems like a 10 on first blush, but I'm docking it a few. While the movie focuses on a mother and son relationship, and is also charmingly insane, a perfect 10 would have explained why it was OK for Sante to murder someone to provide for her children. Also, for a campy masterpiece, we could have really used a sassy gay friend.
35! Finally, a movie that didn't make me want to die. I would watch this movie over and over again, and I wouldn't even have to be drunk the first couple of times. Do yourself a favor and check this one out before it's too late!