After the resounding success of You, stalker thrillers are a dime a dozen on Netflix including some of the most terrifying true crime documentaries that would get under your skin. Based on a True Crime podcast of the same name by Wondery, Dirty John revolves around an expert con-man and sociopath named John Meehan who befriended a slew of women through his charming personality, marrying them and even having children with them, in order to fuel his addiction to opioids and prescription drugs. The limited series tells the story of a successful Californian interior designer Debra Newell who has gone through a series of failed marriages and is out looking for a stable relationship. Before meeting Meehan, Debra has been on several dates with men who can barely stop talking about their self-centered lives. After them, see she’s a charming, handsome man who seems interested in her life more than his own. To top it off, he is a man of conviction, having served in Iraq, and now working as an Anesthesiologist.
Listen to the True Crime Podcast here: Dirty John
Even though Debra’s children find something off about John, Debra writes them off telling them all the romantic things he does for her. He knows to say the right words, treats her like a queen, and takes care of her like no one had. This perception gap creates a distance between her and her family. Interestingly, even as an audience, you see the mischief in his eyes, but in your heart of hearts, there is still a sliver of hope that – maybe they are mistaken, and he is actually just a misunderstood guy. But before long, that benefit of the doubt goes out the window as John starts to show his true colours unabashedly. His behaviour becomes erratic and he starts mistreating Debra when she tries to know more about him. When Debra is upset, he uses her gullibility to explain his behaviour, chalking it down to his rough past. However, Debra’s elder daughter Veronica aka Ronnie hires a private detective and bugs start to crawl out of the woodwork. The investigation reveals a long history of felonies including stalking, extortion, and intent to kill, towards multiple women. He had also never served in Iraq and was not even a licensed nurse. By then it’s too late as Debra and John are married. When Debra tries to confront him about his blatant lies, he has a smug look on his face and challenges her to get rid of him. This triggers a long, horrifying struggle between the Newell family and Meehan, as he tries to rip apart their lives from every aspect.
Eric Bana seamlessly becomes Meehan with the madness in his eyes. He switches between a charmer and a sociopath at the drop of a hat and makes your skin crawl with the lengths that he goes to, to destroy the family. Undoubtedly, one of his best character portrayals to date. Connie Britton as Debra Newell gives a measured performance as a classy, gullible, rich entrepreneur who cannot seem to imagine that someone could be so maniacal. Her niceties tend to get on your nerve as you expect her to give some reaction to the craziness happening around him. I am not sure if that tone-dead-ness was something that she was consciously doing, but it explains how John was able to get away with so much. Juno Temple as Ronnie and Julia Garner as Terra play the quintessential spoiled daughters, but later jump in to defend their mother.
Dirty John starts slow but picks up a brisk pace half-way through. Through a non-linear screenplay, you keep getting sucked into the quagmire that John has created around his persona and in his life, conning people and family alike. Although time has been spent to establish his past relationships with his ex-wives, it does not make you invest in what happens to them. That part of the exposition feels unnecessary as a parallel timeline. It would have been more interesting, in my opinion, had one of the daughters discovered those people and then gotten to know his scary true story from them. It is unbelievable that people can be so gullible in this day and age even with all the awareness that social media claims to propagate. But then, people are human beings. Once you have gone through a hard time, you try to grab on to any straw that would help you from drowning. It is only later that you may realize that it was rotten.