No One Saw A Thing opens with sweeping drone footage and shots of a truck barreling down an empty road. For local viewers, the sparse plains and farmland surrounding the small town of Skidmore, Mo., will be intensely familiar. In a lot of ways, Skidmore is no different to any other small Missouri town, but its history is overflowing with tragedy and darkness. Director Avi Belkin takes an intimate look at Skidmore and its violent history from the viewpoint of its aging citizens.
The six-part Sundance documentary details the town’s downward spiral and struggle with gruesome crimes, the possibility that they all stem from the stunning vigilante killing of the town’s most infamous bully and the supposed “curse” brought on them by their silence in its aftermath.
This is not your typical true crime documentary. Though the murder of Ken Rex McElroy remains officially unsolved, one thing has been certain since nearly half the town gathered around his truck and watched as he was shot dead: they know who did it. His murderer or murderers were Skidmore residents, protected by the townsfolk in what was called “a conspiracy of silence.”
Some of the citizens were truly happy to see McElroy gone, as he had a reputation for terrorizing his hometown. Some went so far as to say that if no one else had done it, they would have killed him themselves. Others were disgusted by the mob mentality that led to his death and certain that no one deserves to be murdered. Regardless of their opinion, however, they all agreed: in Skidmore, you don’t talk about who it was who really fired the shots.
It is this joint decision to keep quiet that every member of this tiny town of only around 200 people has to sit with. They have the ability to solve a murder, yet they don’t. Belkin chooses to focus his six-part series not on this one killing as a singular act, but rather on the trauma that it and its subsequent cover-up caused. For years after the killing, Skidmore was plagued by mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders, which some view as payment for their silence.
Belkin takes our idealistic American view of small town life and turns it on its head. In a place where everyone knows everyone’s business, what happens when the secrets become more than just idle gossip? Yet despite the dark subject matter, you cannot deny the genuine bond that the people of Skidmore have with one another. Each of the many citizens interviewed has a deep connection to one another, from their kids being raised together to being old bandmates in the ’70s.
This isn’t the story of an evil town, but rather, it's the story of how evil acts bring out the worst in even the kindest of people. In this sense, it is incredibly compelling. Occasionally repetitive and certainly lengthy at an over four hour run time across six episodes, No One Saw A Thing is gorgeous and simplistic in its cinematography, which makes it hard to look away. Though one could argue that the story follows no real plot, the point of this documentary seems not to be an informative piece but rather a work that drives the viewer to question their own morals. What would you have done?