Eager to find its next “Making a Murderer,” Netflix devotes seven hours to “The Keepers,” a cold case that has as its center the unsolved 1969 murder of a Baltimore nun. While the story takes several engrossing twists and unexpected turns, the project labors at times under its complexity, lacking the clear “Steve Avery: Innocent or guilty?” through line that its forerunner possessed.
Indeed, where “Making a Murderer” and HBO’s “The Jinx” possessed the focus of a real-life thriller, “Keepers” director Ryan White’s chronicle splinters off in several directions. And while that reflects the grim realities of a sordid situation that was allowed to go unchecked, even as a back-to-back binge the compelling narrative can at times feel unwieldy.
The project derives its title from teenage students of Sister Cathy Cesnik, now in their 60s, who have kept this mystery alive and doggedly sought to uncover what really happened.
Beyond Cesnak’s abduction and brutal murder and that of another young woman, the investigation exposes abuse and corruption within the Catholic Church, including allegations originally brought forth in the 1990s regarding a high school chaplain, which might have played a role in Cathy’s death.
Given the passage of time, there are gaps in what’s known about the crimes. The facts that are known, and that come up as the narrative progresses, are harrowing enough to make “The Keepers” consistently intriguing, painstakingly documenting a long-overlooked injustice. It’s another tale of sexual abuse where the authorities failed the victims – leaving them to feel alone and intimidated to maintain their silence.
Unlike the programs that have defined this genre, “The Keepers” is also short on “a-ha” moments. Although the producers note that work began before “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” it’s impossible not to view the project in that context.
The long-form documentary isn’t suited to every non-fiction tale. In that regard, it’s hard not to compare this seven-part film to something like Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which covered similar terrain about priestly abuse within the format of a single riveting film.
White’s devotion to the case is apparent, but “The Keepers” seems like an instance where a less-expansive canvas – and the concentrated approach that would have required – would have been more beneficial than the latitude to venture down every corridor, even when they might lead to a dead end.
“The Keepers” premieres May 19 on Netflix.