Review: Truth and lies are the focus of 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace'

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (FX)
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (FX)
Published Jan. 12, 2018

Maybe Jack Nicholson was wrong. We can handle the truth.

The #MeToo movement is giving a microphone to once unheard voices. Political lies are constantly challenged. At the Golden Globes, Oprah's rousing speech asserted "the most powerful tool is speaking your truth."

But Ryan Murphy's second installment of American Crime Story shows the dangerous difference between the absolute truth and "your truth."

Gianni Versace's 1997 murder didn't culturally resonate like the O.J. Simpson case, the subject of the show's first installment. Ultimately, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story doesn't have as much story to tell. Instead, it's portrait of a killer during 1990s homophobia, told through a modern lens.

The FX series is based on Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors, which focused not only on the Italian fashion designer's murder on the steps of his Miami Beach home but also the FBI's botched investigation of Andrew Cunanan, a gay serial killer. It isn't an authorized biography of either party. In fact, the Versace family has widely denounced the show and book.

Penelope Cruz, who plays Versace's sister and muse, Donatella, and Ricky Martin as his partner, Antonio D'Amico, both give award-worthy performances. And Edgar Ramírez brings a warm, poetic soul to Versace. It's really a shame that they're all sidelined by Darren Criss's phenomenal character development as Cunanan.

The 27-year-old killed four other men before aiming the gun at his most famous target and then himself. At first, his motivations are unclear, the victims somewhat unknown. Here the show takes a page out of Murphy's American Horror Story. The gruesome murders — seductively scored and shot — are senseless.

Eight of the nine episodes provided to critics unfold the story in reverse, beginning with Versace's murder and ending with Cunanan's childhood. Additional flashbacks further confuse the timeline, especially when you're not binging in one sitting. However, it's an effective way to shift focus onto the victims and ultimately Cunanan's destructive descent.

Criss is fully committed to this role and proves he's graduated from his Glee years, showing off Cunanan's strutting confidence and loathsome eyes. He's a con-man swiftly moving from calm to manic. Slowly, Cunanan's carefully cultivated persona is exposed.

"Every time I feel like I'm getting close to you, you say you're someone else," pleads Cunanan's college friend in the first episode.

Cunanan first kills his friend Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), a retired Naval officer living in Minneapolis with Cunanan's obsession and next victim, David Madson (Cody Fern). As the two gay men try to live openly, providing insight into gay identity, Cunanan basks in his own alternate reality. He's gay; he's straight. He comes from a wealthy New York family. He's working for Versace, designing costumes for operas. He manipulates every situation, believing he's giving others the reality they want.

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In contrast, the series weaves in Versace's past, despite the two leads sharing little screen time. After surviving a health scare, he chose to publicly come out in 1995, despite Donatella's reservations that it could ruin the family company. Versace had passion, talent and fame; but he also had support from the people he surrounded himself with.

Fearing loneliness and abandonment, and yearning for love and adoration, Cunanan ended the lives of the people closest to him and someone who got in the way. And one life he could never have.

The show urges reflecting on sincerity and how everyone occasionally warps reality. Homophobia still exists; #fakenews is constantly thrown around in haste. Speaking any truth can have good or ill intentions, for oneself or for others. Ultimately, the perils of truth affect both sides.

The docudrama is based on a real 20-year-old crime, and it might not be entirely accurate. As Cunanan liked to bend pieces of the truth to entertain and impress his audience, Versace does the same.

Contact Brittany Volk at Follow @bevolk.