For better or worse, Meredith Baxter and Valerie Bertinelli are indelibly associated in the public consciousness with Lifetime movies. Both women possessed the irresistible combination of recognizable faces and affordable price tags that guaranteed they would have work in TV movies whenever they desired. As Lifetime has expanded its brand, they have managed to attract fading but honest-to-god movie stars like Christina Ricci, Ellen Burstyn, and Heather Graham, brilliant character actors like Garret Dillahunt, and suddenly ubiquitous it girls like Rose McIver. It’s really no surprise when a quality actor shows up in a role, and really is hardly even slumming it. What is at least mildly surprising is when they show up to work. Rob Lowe plays convicted murderer Drew Peterson in this week’s Lifetime Theater, and plays the hell out of him.
I’ve often cited the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra as the perfect example of the problem with Hollywood. First off, it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, a director who manages to helm both big-budget crowd-pleasers and critically acclaimed indies with equal aplomb. It stars a recognizable name — Michael Douglas — doing some of the best work of his distinguished career, and a bona fide movie star in Matt Damon. It’s stuffed with ringers like Dan Aykroyd and Nicky Katt, and is compulsively watchable in that jittery, disconnected way Soderbergh has mastered. With all of that, it somehow failed to get theater distribution and had to settle for HBO. The reason I bring this up is that there is a solid argument to be made that Rob Lowe is the best part of that movie. He appears out of nowhere as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, holding his face in a botox rictus, and speaking with the gentle tones of Dr. Leo Spaceman. He’s responsible for putting Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson on amphetamines, which is funny because that’s exactly the kind of thing Dr. Spaceman would (and has) done.
Lowe repurposes the performance for Drew Peterson, making the the lack of facial affect stand in for his lack of conscience and his glib tone to undercut the horrifying things he says. While I might rail against laziness anywhere else, the fact is it’s a damn fun performance. Really, it’s a lot of fun watching Rob Lowe tear into the archetypical Lifetime villain with such gusto. The movie features a wraparound scene that’s Drew Peterson squinting and joking through a television interview, though in true Lifetime fashion, it’s not fully realized. Since the movie ends with his incarceration, it’s unclear as to when this whole thing took place or really what’s going on there. But who cares? Rob Lowe! Playing a monster! And boy is he.
The first flashback sequence features him having energetic sex with his (third) wife Kathleen Savio (Mad Men’s Cara Buono). When their son comes in, Drew just dismounts and stands in front of his kid, buck naked and presumably fully slicked and engorged. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but a kid should never be in danger of losing an eye due to careless dick use.
Drew is constantly on the prowl and almost immediately sets his sights on motel concierge Stacy (Kaley Cuoco), who is young enough to be his daughter’s much younger friend. They start having an affair that’s so brazen it’s almost laudable. I mean, he actually takes Stacy into his own wife’s basement (not a euphemism) for banging. Kathleen knows what’s up pretty quick — and the implication seems to be this is how their relationship may have started — but she’s helpless to do anything. Why? Because Drew Peterson is untouchable!
Specifically, he’s a cop. So even after Kathleen throws him out of the house, he feels free to barge in whenever. The cops she calls tell her straight out that they’re not going to do anything to Drew. When Kathleen shows up having drowned in a dry bathtub, every investigation should focus solely on Drew Peterson, but he’s not even a suspect. The Medical Examiner concludes it was an accidental drowning, and at a routine questioning, Stacy is way too relieved at that story, hinting that maybe she suspects something.
Drew wants Stacy to be home all day, and is utterly baffled when she expresses a desire to go meet new neighbor Karen. She’s played by Catherine Dent, so we know she will eventually be crusading for justice at some point. Stacy opens up to Karen and for the first time gets an outsider’s perspective on the relationship. Hilariously, Stacy only just realizes that sneaking into the wife’s own basement to cheat is seriously messed up. Pretty soon, Drew gets insanely jealous about every living thing (including, at one point, of a corpse), and the relationship turns violent. Before long, Stacy has vanished without a trace.
Karen teams up with Stacy’s sister to shed some light on the disappearance. Odd for the structure, it’s actually Kathleen’s sister — who has appeared briefly — who turns the attention to Kathleen rather than Stacy. Hey, that’s real life. It was Kathleen’s murder that busted Drew (after they exhumed her), and Stacy’s body was never found. The local cops were useless, but when the State Police question Drew’s dim bulb pal Glenn (William Mapother) they get the info they need. The flashback shows them loading up a blue barrel, hinting that these guys decided to use Heisenberg’s method of body disposal. When a priest comes forward, the final bit of the story comes to light: in an early throwaway scene Drew washed some clothes. Turns out he got home really late on the night Kathleen died and then threw those clothes in the wash.
Drew Peterson:Untouchable is nice because it bridges the gap between Lifetime as people perceive it and Lifetime as it has become. It’s a true crime story where the villain is an abusive husband, and to its credit shows the escalation of abuse in a fairly realistic way. The important thing to enjoy the movie is not to dwell on the deaths involved, and instead enjoy that he’s in prison. As a villain he’s pretty damn reprehensible. Lowe turns in a performance far too good for a simple TV movie, one he borrowed from a much better film. It’s really the most fun you can have with a multiple murdering scumbag like Peterson.
What did we learn? Well, maybe if he’s willing to sneak you into his wife’s basement (still not a euphemism) for sex, maybe he’s not quite marriage material.