In a Child's Name

If you watch only one nerve-racking true-crime TV movie this season, make it In a Child’s Name — it’s so well made, you’ll feel gleefully guilty for enjoying its sordid tragedy. Based on Peter Maas’ book of the same title, Name stars Twin Peaks‘ Michael Ontkean as a dentist who battered and subsequently murdered his wife in 1984. Then, from his prison cell, he sought to have his parents — who believed his lies of innocence-retain custody of his infant son, waging a fierce battle against his sister-in-law, played by Valerie Bertinelli.

Name is better structured than most miniseries because the drama divides with a logical evenness — the first night we see what led up to the murder, and the second night examines the custody fight. Ontkean, who spent the two-season length of Twin Peaks being modest and anonymous, is a perfect low-key killer as Dr. Kenneth Taylor. Taylor is portrayed as a neurotically tidy control freak who kept his house immaculate but regularly gave in to messily violent impulses. Ontkean’s blank good looks, thick voice, and empty stare serve him well — a guy who looks and talks like this would seem to be either a model citizen or a psycho, which helps to explain why the people in Taylor’s life saw him so differently.

In the custody battle, the script tips the scales toward Bertinelli by depicting Taylor’s parents, played by Louise Fletcher and David Huddleston, as coldly formal people. It is suggested that they will never give the baby the kind of love that Bertinelli’s earthy, ebullient Angela so clearly will.

There are flaws here — the personality of the murdered woman, Teresa Silvano (Karla Tamburrelli), for example, is vague; it’s as if she exists in the movie only to be a victim. But director Tom McLoughlin makes the custody scenes as unnerving as the chilling murder, and turns In a Child’s Name into a harrowing TV movie. A-

In a Child's Name
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