Thursday, June 14, 2012

'talhotblond' Makes Me Question Our Sense of Online Justice...

I'm not a detective. Obviously. I'm not even an investigative reporter. But I certainly grew up with more than my fair share of true crime books devoured, "ripped from the headlines" Law & Orders watched, and yes, even the latest edition of the Crime Classification Manual dog-eared and bookmarked. I may not have the stomach (or the legs) to actually chase down a perpetrator, let alone stare at a bloated corpse, but I certainly still spend a good amount of my time profiling everyone from suspicious characters in my favorite new forms of media (see: The Killing) to my very own friends and inner circle (don't judge me; we all do it; you probably just call it "gossiping"). All of this combined with the fact that when I was thirteen years old, I used to log onto AOL and make up stories about who I was to all of the people I would meet in chatrooms had my bullshit detector on over-alert while screening Lifetime's new movie of the week, talhotblond.

Now, talhotblond is based on the true story of Thomas Montgomery, a forty-something husband, father of two, and former Marine who met a teenage girl in a chatroom a half a decade ago and pretended to be a younger, leaner, still-in-combat version of himself. The short version of the story is that his wife found out about his online, emotional affair and confronted the girl through a letter, exposing his lie. But oddly, it was neither woman who ended up murdered, allegedly on the other end of Montgomery's rifle. Instead, it was a younger co-worker of his, Brian Barrett, who was also chatting with this girl online. 

The fictional version (not to be confused with the documentary of the same name) of Montgomery's story does a spectacular job at slowly immersing you in his average, mundane life and showing how he had no spark until some girl on the internet made him feel important again. Garret Dillahunt, admittedly looking a bit pedophilic as Montgomery, gave in to hunched shoulders, sad eyes, and a quiet disposition that gradually grew more frantic as Montgomery became consumed with his new online lifestyle and all of the lies he had to juggle to keep up with it. He approached addict behavior without ever crossing the line to over the top. The success of this telling rides on Dillahunt's shoulders, and he is certainly just that. It's just a shame that the script was so short-sided and one-dimensional.

See, the thing is, there is so much more to this story than one man's unraveling. Montgomery is such an "every man" character that the cautionary part of this tale should be that a similar infatuation could happen to anyone-- even in your own family. But within talhotblond, Montgomery stews more than he rages, and that means nothing truly of note or out of the ordinary happens until the final few minutes. After all, it is 2012, and online affairs are a dime a dozen, if not in the news or on network procedurals than actually in our own lives, backyards, families. Instead what is truly interesting (though admittedly not completely unique) is the other side to the story: the girl who Montgomery knew as Katie Brooks within talhotblond (but whom the real Montgomery knew as Jessi) was actually a woman Montgomery's own age. But not just any woman; in a sicker Catfish style twist, the woman was actually Jessi's mother.

Allow that to sink in for a moment. There is a real woman out there who posed as her teenage daughter in chatrooms. She used her daughter's name, which is gross enough, but what's worse is she actively sent photos of her daughter. To strangers. In the internet ether. Where any nutjob could become obsessed and start stalking her unaware daughter. This woman's name is Mary Shieler. She is real. She is still alive. She is still a free woman. She is probably not the first person to have done something like this, and because movies made about this story focus on Montgomery, there can't even be a real lesson in the consequences of her actions. Because there seem to have been no consequences. So undoubtedly, she will be far from the last woman to have done something like this.

I'm disgusted.

I'm not saying Shieler physically shot Barrett (though I'm going to hold onto that theory, too, for a little while-- a theory based on more than just the fact that procedurals have trained me always to expect an eleventh hour twist), but even if she had no literal blood on her hands, she certainly set this whole thing in motion. She struck up the online conversation; she sent the photo unprompted or provoked (even if some liberties have been take with the truth there, she still kept the conversation and photos-- and if you believe the film, the panties from her daughter's dresser drawer-- flowing. She couldn't have known whether or not Montgomery was stable, just as she couldn't have known whether or not he was really the twenty-something kid in Iraq he was claiming to be. And that's exactly the point: anyone can be anyone online, and if you know you are duping people, you should assume they are doing the same to you. My point, though, is that if all of these things are unknown, how do you not have the common sense to air on the side of caution?

Shieler's ignorance, while ridiculous, could be at least somewhat irreprehensible. She was older, not of a generation that really understood computers. If she didn't question the area code he called her from when he was supposedly in Iraq; if she didn't question the time it would have been over there or how he was able to get online, uninterrupted as often as he did, well those are things you don't see when you don't want to see them. But when the chats starting getting possessive, angry, violent, that's when the responsibility crept in-- if not to come clean, than to at least cut off communication.

The real Montgomery maintained his innocence over shooting Barrett. [SPOILER ALERT] The film shows otherwise. I obviously can't prove anything one way or the other. I have done a little research on the case, and mixing that with intuition, he is a very likely candidate. But I can't ignore the other likely candidate in Shieler herself. Shieler, who was on the verge of being exposed. Had Barrett gone out to visit Jessi like he said he was going to the weekend he was murdered, she would have been found out. Sometimes people can't take the truth coming out. It seems suspect that Montgomery would have gone through his truth coming out and then took such a violent action. It seems obvious such a shooting-- a crime of passion-- is the act of someone in the throws of desperation. talhotblond paints Montgomery as newly desperate because he fears he is losing his young girlfriend to Barrett, but that late response just feels illogical to me.

As I said earlier, though, regardless of who pulled the trigger, the fact that Sheiler has not had to answer to any criminal responsibility in Barrett's murder-- or in the pimping and pornography of her own child-- is absolutely sickening. You may hide behind aliases online because you can't face your own life, but things that transpire in the virtual world still need to have real world consequences-- especially when they result in a very real death. If you're going to prosecute for cyber crimes (which I fully understand was not what this case was about, though I think there should have been a rider to allow for it), you can't do so with a double standard. She was a very specific kind of cyber bully, and she should not remain blameless for her part in the only actually innocent person involved in the online affair.

talhotblond needs to wrap everything up neatly for its audience because everyone knows the handsome bad guys in the Lifetime movies have to be sent away so the women folk can sleep at night. But life is not so cut and dry, so this is one true crime tale that actually left me with a lot more questions than answers.

...Also, I feel it imperative to point out that the epilogue title cards at the end of talhotblond are based on the characters within the movie, not the actual people on which the movie is based. That device is usually used in historical fiction to give the audience the real facts, and the fact that talhotblond continues with their own skewed sense of reality is worrisome, and potentially detrimentally misleading, for anyone getting the facts of this case from this film.

talhotblond will air on Lifetime on June 23rd. Happy freakin' birthday to me.

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