Lifetime's latest true-crime movies look at Robert Durst, Elizabeth Smart

Posted October 31, 2017 12:33 p.m. EDT

— After dallying with some higher-quality fare, the Lifetime movie's tawdry, true-crime roots are showing with this month's premieres of "The Lost Wife of Robert Durst" and "I Am Elizabeth Smart."

There's a degree of symmetry in that, since Durst's story, as told in HBO's reality show "The Jinx," combined with Netflix's "Making a Murderer" to help spur TV's current crime wave, both of the scripted and unscripted variety.

"The Lost Wife of Robert Durst," arriving this weekend, is easily the more compelling of the two, plugging in details of the story that transpired long before the events that eventually put the peculiar real-estate heir behind bars. (A third movie, "Oscar Pistorious: Blade Runner Killer," about the Olympian convicted of killing his girlfriend, will air between them.) 

An appropriately creepy Daniel Gillies (CW's "The Originals") plays a younger Durst, who meets Kathie ("Scorpion's" Katharine McPhee) because she's an attractive new tenant in one of his buildings. Ignoring his quirks, she falls for him, resulting in a whirlwind romance and marriage that quickly turns sour and abusive.

In keeping with the title, "Lost Wife" also involves Kathie going missing, and authorities turning their attention to her husband, without ever finding a body or cracking the case. Durst is also shown interacting with his friend Susan Berman, whose death later would prove his undoing.

Even for those who have followed the Durst saga, it's a reasonably slick and polished look at this perplexing figure. That's more than can be said of "I Am Elizabeth Smart," an ungainly film about the young girl tragically kidnapped from her home and held in captivity for nine months by religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell (Skeet Ulrich) and his accomplice, Wanda Barzee (Deirdre Lovejoy), before she was rescued.

Produced in cooperation with Smart, who is now a victims' rights advocate, the movie -- marking the 15th anniversary of these events -- awkwardly inserts her direct-to-camera observations throughout the narrative. As if to soften the most sordid aspects of the story, when Smart (played by Alana Boden) is about to be raped, her real-life alter ego appears on screen, saying things like, "Do you want it to stop? So did I" and "Who wants to watch that? I didn't."

These interludes are clearly supposed to feel uplifting, reinforcing that Smart survived her ordeal and came away strong enough to address it. (Her experience was previously turned into a 2003 movie, "The Elizabeth Smart Story.")

Yet there's also a defensive undercurrent to her efforts to set the record straight, with Smart at one point stressing, "I never had Stockholm syndrome" (referring to prisoners identifying with their captors), as she survives a grueling series of near misses in terms of being found before her liberation.

"Patience and endurance became my weapons," Smart explains.

Even knowing how her story turns out, those qualities will surely be helpful for anyone determined to watch "I Am Elizabeth Smart."

"The Lost Wife of Robert Durst" and "I Am Elizabeth Smart" premiere Nov. 4 and Nov. 18, respectively, at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.