All I knew about this movie going in was that it was the “a dingo ate my baby” movie. I expected the movie to be fairly serious, because it would be tacky to tell a story about a mother losing their infant child to a wild animal attack in a titillating way. I also expected it to be a bit histrionic, because there had to be some reason for that line to become a pop culture punchline. What I got was actually something quite different: instead of being about the death of a child, this is more of an exploration of how tabloid journalism can lead to a miscarriage of justice.
The dingo attack occurs in the first fifteen minutes of the two hour movie. What remains is the after-effects: the parents try to return to their life as well as they can, but they are hounded by the press who don’t believe their story. The unfortunate couple remains in the news for years and years, and the public suspicion becomes so great that they are put on trial for murder even though they’ve already passed a legal inquiry that cleared them of any wrongdoing. Eventually the mother is sentenced to a life sentence for her daughter’s death, although she is completely innocent.
The decision to make the movie be a legal thriller and not a horror movie was a smart one. Taking the long view of the story allows for more context and that context is what’s important about this story. Yes, the tragedy is compelling, but it suffers from a problem that I have with a lot of tabloid stories: why this case and not that one? I don’t know how many infants died accidental deaths in Australia the year of that dingo attack, but why did that one case become such a sensation? How many other kids disappeared the same year that JonBenet Ramsey did? Why spend so much energy on the Casey Anthony trial and not any other trial? There’s a fascinating discussion of the Elizabeth Smart case in Under the Banner of Heaven about how during the time the media was focusing on that one abduction there were multiple other children getting kidnapped in the same region at the same time for similar religious reasons.
By focusing not on the dingo attack but on the media frenzy the movie avoids that problem. It doesn’t have to worry about feeling exploitative, or about blowing something out of proportion. The attack is put in the movie only to provide set-up for the circus that will follow it. There’s a reason why this one case was picked to profile: because it’s a crystal clear example of a serious problem that’s often sort of murky. We may never really know what harm the media intrusion into those other cases caused but we know exactly what it did here: it jailed an innocent women for three years.
This movie’s status as an unwitting punchline is bizarre to me. On some level I get why “a dingo ate my baby!” became a running gag in pop culture – it’s for the same reason that Schindler’s List is often used as an example when someone wants to go for an easy joke that’s purposefully tasteless: it’s because a young mother losing her child is obviously so terrible that it becomes hard to process it except by laughing at it. But what I don’t get is why this movie doesn’t have more of a reputation as a serious critique of our media culture. It’s just as valid of a skewering of our modern news cycle climate as Network. In fact, it might even be better because it’s more specific about it’s criticism and more grounded. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t have the cachet it deserves to have because it’s a fascinating story and one that’s still timely.