Written by: Adam Vaughn | July 1st, 2021
The Phantom (Patrick Forbes, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
An all-around intriguing concept, director Patrick Forbes’ The Phantom, the true story of America’s first death-penalty discrepancy, shows how two characters cross paths during a late night robbery, resulting in a fatal outcome for an innocent man. While the documentary has narrative shape that drives its intense and dramatic story forward, the content feels jumbled and highly repetitive. At the end of the day, what could have been a condensed, coherent episode of a series is dragged out to a disheveled feature, despite its intriguing tale.
The Phantom tells the story of Carlos DeLuna, a Latinx man in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1983, who was accused of murdering Wanda Lopez in cold blood. As Carlos is arrested and prosecuted, he finds himself at death’s door, as the local police department deems him guilty. But DeLuna pleads innocent, claiming a “Carlos Hernandez” is responsible for the death of Ms. Lopez. With no evidence to back up that assertion, DeLuna runs out of luck, only for a police investigation to find, years later, that Carlos Hernandez, labeled “the phantom” by the department, is a real person … and quite possibly the actual killer.
The entirety of The Phantom’s story is in fact a decent one, with twists and turns in the outcome of both Carlos’ fates as the Corpus Christi police force pushes to convict a man for murder, while defendants and lawyers on the side of truth speculate if the right decision has been made. As we learn more about what kind of person DeLuna was, we are presented with vast perspectives from various people who knew Carlos (ranging from the lawyers who fought for and against him, to persons as close to him as his brother and mother). This allows the viewer to make their own decision as to who Carlos was and what to think of him.
As the film transitions into discovering Carlos Hernandez, which happens quite late in the film, we find ourselves also revisiting points about Carlos DeLuna, repeating ideas and dialogue from the same interviewees, with information that no longer feels fresh. It’s as if director Forbes (Putin: The New Tsar) tries to wring more effect out of the most effective, dramatic segments of his story. While various aesthetic conventions help the film along (numerous interviews have powerful, dramatic lighting that color the mood), a more concise length (possibly an episode-length story) would deliver the same information in a more solid way.