Overview: A documentary exploring the 30 year cold case surrounding the disappearance of Johnny Gosch. Rumur; 2014; 81 minutes.
Underbelly First: Who Took Johnny doesn’t start with an exploration of its focal crime’s neighborhood setting. There’s no extended effort on the part of filmmakers Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and David Beilinson to establish the idyllic surface of West Des Moines, Iowa, the town from which Johnny Gosch was presumably abducted in September of 1982. Such an effort would likely come off as cheap narrative documentary trick. It would also be somewhat redundant, given the incidental collection of visual symbols communicating a vision of a world so All-American that it feels almost unreal from the onset. First, there’s the perfect blonde part in the continually referenced picture of Johnny Gosch. Then, there’s the long, evenly maintained green lawn stretching back from the sidewalk point from which the teenager disappeared. There’s the Rockwellian red wagon left behind by his abduction and the middle class porch upon which his parents give desperate interviews. Even as Who Took Johnny dives headfirst into an unthinkably dark situation, the film can not avoid observance of these telling symbols, and the subconsciously created preconception of this neighborhood constructs an unexpectedly high leaping off point, one whose polished surface makes the depth of the film’s exploration of depravity all that more jarring.
Strangely Narrative: Who Took Johnny is a strange and dark film–building a story that is uneasy, cynical, and horrifying. But what’s perhaps most exceptional is just how narrative the entire exercise ends up being. Consider the way that Johnny’s mother Noreen has a full character arc. By the film’s end, we have witnessed Noreen build her entire remedied identity out of grief. And then there’s the film’s balance of ideas and symbols, perhaps most measurable in the juxtaposition of the discussion of Johnny’s innocent birthmark and the repetitive frames showing the black skin branding of the sex trafficking ring into which it is suggested that Johnny is abducted. And in the almost perfectly opposite images of the Gosch’s middle class porch and the hole beneath the porch of abandoned house where it is thought the youthful sex slaves were kept, the support beams marred with the initials of missing children, the second image almost a hell-toned negative of the first. Perhaps most strikingly unbelievable is the sudden appearance of Paul Bonacci, a troubled young prisoner with Multiple Personality Disorder who shows up out of nowhere claiming that he was forced to abduct Johnny as a member of the same sex ring. If Bonacci feels like too convenient of a storytelling device for a documentary feature, then so too does the complete lack of interest and cooperation from the FBI and local police, who deem Bonacci an unreliable witness even when he reveals knowledge of Johnny’s body that was not publicized by the press. When the viewing suspicion that the film is stranger-than-life can not be confirmed, then we must accept that real life actually was the host of this expansive nightmare.
The Lynchian Reality: One of the more surface-level themes of Who Took Johnny is its assessment that America, and in particular the American heartland, was naively unprepared for this type of abduction, even as the story showed that it was already far too commonplace. While parents in the early 1980s allowed their children to wander freely between their school and home, law enforcement had to wait 72 hours to take action when a child went missing. Johnny Gosch’s disappearance helped change this law so police could act immediately. It also helped normalize the pictures of missing children on milk cartons and Gosch’s parents were pivotal in the establishment for the National Center for Missing an Exploited Children. The fact that Johnny was never found and his case never considered a crime leads one to believe that maybe even these measures of correction were not enough. That even today, there pumps a black energy in the veins of America that may or may not be protected by powerful people and even our protective institutions.
Overall: Who Took Johnny doesn’t measure an answer or solution but shares its frightened observation of an incomplete story that feels like something authored by David Lynch. It forces each viewer to realize both the possibility of widespread evil and the subconscious energy we spend every day convincing ourselves that this sort of thing is the stuff of fiction.