“Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X” is a found footage film and mockumentary directed by James D. Mortellaro and written by Steve Longmuir and James D. Mortellaro. The film is shot in the documentary format and follows a film crew investigating the infamous serial killers Dwayne and Darla-Jean.
This hyper-realistic mockumentary is a companion film to Video X: The Dwayne and Darla-Jean Story (2007). Both films present the same subject matter, but different perspectives. While Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X follows a documentary approach, Video X: The Dwayne and Darla-Jean Story (2007) is pure found footage. That said, Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X is best viewed first, as the second film will take much of the thunder away if watched in the wrong order.
Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X opens with the onscreen message, “6 States, 17 Armed Robberies, 13 Attempted Murders, 11 Dead, 2 Suspects.” These statistics refer to the atrocities by serial killers Dwayne Foote and Darla-Jean Stanton.
Presented in a traditional documentary format, the film offers a chronological narrative of the crimes of Dwayne and Darla-Jean told through eyewitness accounts and interviews with local law enforcement, friends, and relatives. Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X stitches together a coherent story of the horrific crimes, destroyed families, and forever scarred communities left in the wake of Dwayne and Darla-Jean.
The film also explores the childhood of Dwayne and Darla-Jean through interviews with a teacher, friends, and family members—many of whom are still seeking answers as to what drove these two unlikely criminals to commit such depraved acts against humanity.
Dwayne Foote comes from a broken family. He was raised by an abusive father after his mother was killed in a car accident. Dwayne changed following the death of his mother, with whom he was very close. Conversely, Darla-Jean Stanton grew up on the family farm with two nurturing parents. Somewhere along the way, Dwayne started dating Darla-Jean, who was underage at the time. From here, the couple started a crime spree spanning six states.
Many of the interviews point to Dwayne’s upbringing as the root cause of his life path, while others cite Darla-Jean as the influential factor driving Dwayne into a life of crime. Others say that Darla-Jean was an unwitting participant, even a hostage, during the crime spree. Still yet, some eyewitnesses claim that Dwayne and Darla-Jean were partners in crime, enjoying every step of their murderous rampage.
The evidence of Dwayne and Darla-Jean’s path of death and destruction primarily consists of eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence. The only known visual record of their crimes are a few still images and a very low-quality surveillance footage tape of their first robbery.
As the documentary unfolds, the film crew uncovers the possible existence of a videotape capturing all of Dwayne and Darla-Jean’s crimes. Did Dwayne and Darla-Jean bring a video camera with them to film their exploits? The very existence of this rumored evidence, only known as Video X, could shed new light on the crime spree and reveal the true nature of the relationship between Dwayne Foote and Darla-Jean Stanton.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography measures how accurately a film looks and feels like actual found footage. Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X does an exceptional job at creating a convincing documentary feel as one would find on the History Channel. The film is primarily shot with video cameras held by the documentary crew, with supplemental footage captured using a surveillance camera and consumer grade handheld video camera.
Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X was shot in 2003, preceding the era where high definition video cameras were commonplace. That said, the film is presented as grainy, low definition video. The majority of the film is shot by the documentary crew in the form of personal interviews of eyewitnesses, local law enforcement, and family and friends of the two serial killers. The audio during the interview scenes is captured using a boom mic, which is standard equipment for a professional documentary crew.
The surveillance footage is presented in black and white, is highly degraded. The low quality of this footage is indicative of what one would expect from a surveillance camera repeatedly recording to the same VHS tape over and over for years. The frame rate of the footage is also very low (at perhaps 10 FPS) which would indicate the use of a low-quality digital video camera.
The film closes with an excerpt of the actual Video X footage captured using Dwayne and Darla-Jean’s handheld video camera. Once again, the footage from these scenes is of a very low quality. Dispersed within the interview footage, and adding to the documentary feel of the film, are panning still images of the crime scenes and of Dwayne and Darla-Jean.
Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X offers strong filming reasons throughout the plot. First and foremost, the film crew is filming for the explicit purpose of creating a documentary surrounding Dwayne Foote and Darla-Jean and their crimes. Similar to a typical true crime documentary, interviews are conducted with law enforcement, eyewitnesses, and family, friends, and acquaintances of the suspects. Unlike many similarly structured found footage mockumentaries, Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X doesn’t contain any scenes where the documentary crew is in mortal peril, which avoids the uncomfortable question as to why the documentary crew is still filming.
Also included in the documentary is surveillance footage from a convenience store and excerpts from the elusive Video X. The surveillance footage is organically captured as one would expect from an automated camera in a store. The footage from Video X is akin to a home movie and was filmed using a video camera primarily wielded by Dwayne and Darla-Jean.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity is a measure of how believable a film taken as a whole is to actual found footage. Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X does a wonderful job approximating actual found footage and presenting as a very realistic documentary.
While the found footage purity is very good, the approach is not perfect. The movie has one significant chink in its armor, and that that’s the inability (or lack of desire) of law enforcement officials to thwart the straightforward investigative tactics of the documentary crew to unearth information. The documentary crew’s persistent harassment of retired Sheriff William Gavin comes across as highly unlikely. A reasonable person, particularly law enforcement, would most likely have had the film crew arrested for assault.
Even more egregious is the documentary crew’s interviewing of the son of another Sheriff that refused to talk, which would certainly not have ended well had this actually happened. Further, the film crew’s unfettered access to sensitive information from law enforcement officials also seems a bit of a stretch as well. The manner in which the film crew tricks officials into divulging information seems all too easy. These deficiencies could have been avoided through developing alternative plot threads where the documentary crew uncovers new evidence without overtly deceiving or facing off with law enforcement.
The acting in Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X is above average for the typical found footage film. Aside from the character playing retired Sheriff William Gavin, the only characters credited by name are Dwayne, Darla-Jean, and Billy Epp, all of whom (for the most part) appear in the film as still photographs. This is unfortunate as the film contains some very good acting, leaving us to reference the actors strictly by character name.
The best acting by far in the film is Dwayne’s grandmother. Her performance is uncannily real as the stern and protective matriarch living in denial over her grandson’s guilt. She is wholly convinced that Dwayne is an unwitting victim of his father’s abuse and Darla-Jean’s negative influence. Dwayne’s grandmother is fixated on her grandson’s innocence to the point that she proclaims the evidence against him was orchestrated to set him up.
Rick Thomason as Sheriff William Gavin does a good job portraying a retired law enforcement official with nothing but time on his hands and an eagerness to tell his story. Other noteworthy performances include Darla-Jean’s parents, the retired teacher who taught Dwayne and Darla-Jean when they were young children, Vern Doak, the manager of the campground where Dwayne and Darla-Jean stayed prior to their first murder, and Judy Mae Stanton, Darla-Jean’s sister.
The film also includes a sizable ensemble cast of interviewees ranging from eyewitnesses, town residents conveying second-hand knowledge of Dwayne and Darla-Jean, former employers of Dwayne and Darla -Jean, other law enforcement, and surviving victims.
At its core, Murder in the Heartland: The Search for Video X is a faux documentary about two misguided teens in love who leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Dwayne and Darla-Jean’s story mirrors the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, a couple who are similarly in love and caught up on the wrong side of the law.
Given the lack of evidence presented in the film as to what drove the couple to a life of crime, countless questions are raised. Is Dwayne the primary culprit and Darla-Jean an unwitting participant in the series of murders? Did Darla-Jean influence Dwayne to act on her behalf? Were Dwayne and Darla-Jean equal partners in crime?
Several facts are clearly established. Dwayne was raised in a dysfunctional and abusive family, prematurely losing his mother, the parental figure he was closest with. Darla-Jean was raised in a more traditional nuclear family, yet through choice or happenstance ultimately fell into the lore of the couple’s illicit crime spree.
The opinions of family, friends, acquaintances, eyewitnesses, and law enforcement are equally divided as to what may have actually taken place. One fact is certain, the video tape known as Video X is out there and contains answers to some, or perhaps all, of these questions.
The release of the sought after Video X will undoubtedly bring to rest much of the controversy raised in the mockumentary. At the same time, Video X will likely raise even more questions as to what thoughts and motivations were racing through the minds of Dwayne and Darla-Jean so many years ago. Fortunately for those taken in by the lore of the infamous couple, Video X was released in the sequel film, Video X: The Dwayne and Darla-Jean Story (2007).