Netflix’s ‘Voyeur’ is a nauseating documentary about old creeps

Gay Talese carved controversy in the 20th century, producing pioneering examples of New Journalism such as his 1966 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” In recent years, his star has both faded and tested the limits of that old saw about there being “no such thing as bad publicity.” Netflix’s new documentary Voyeur shines a light on the scandal surrounding his 2016 book, The Voyeur’s Motel, and the stranger-than-true story behind it.

The Voyeur’s Motel told the story of Gerald Foos, a serial voyeur who modified his Colorado motel so that he could spy on the guests from an attic crawl space that allowed him to peep in through the ceiling vents. That alone would have been creepy and unsettling, but Foos was no garden-variety peeping tom. Styling himself some sort of independent researcher, Foos took exhaustive notes on the activities and the people he observed, chronicling it all in reams of detailed journals. At some point along the way, Foos began sending letters to Talese, and eventually, Talese decided Foos’ story had the makings of a perfect book.

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And, on the face of it, he’s not wrong. While Foos’ actions are without question inappropriate and criminal, this is the sort of pathology that can’t help but fascinate. The illicit appeal of voyeurism is nothing new—the internet will attest to that—but Foos took things to a whole other level, both in terms of commitment and his confidence that what he was doing was more important than just feeding his own personal fetish at other people’s expense.

The writer’s interactions with Foos raised a whole host of ethical questions, especially when Foos claims to have witnessed a murder… and that was before a Washington Post story revealed that Foos might not have been telling the truth about his salacious tale anyway, or at least not about all aspects of it.

Voyeur uses the sordid tale of Foos and his creeper motel as a launching point, then uses it as an excuse to profile two men united by a voyeuristic desire to peer into other people’s lives, but who went about it in very different ways. However, Voyeur also gains whole other layers beyond what directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury likely intended, simply because of the time in which it’s being released.

The headlines remain filled with the revealed exploits of sexually predatory men. As the likes of Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and more are being confronted with their inappropriate actions, the tale of a serial peeper suddenly becomes something very different. Or rather, we as a society are less likely to view it in the same way we once did.

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The film doesn’t exactly play apologist for Foos’ actions, but through stylistic and directorial choices, it definitely seems to want to paint him as an oddball rather than a predator—a conclusion that might not find support among any of the people who were on the other side of Foos’ air vents.

Simply put: It’s a lot harder to write Foos off as a weirdo when our culture is in the midst of a much-needed and long overdue examination of attitudes toward sexual harassment and abuse. Foos’ story might well be interesting, but it still should have ended with him in jail. When you add to that equation the fact that Talese recently earned headlines for defending Kevin Spacey, the entire story takes on an even more unsettling sheen than it would have in and of itself.

And that’s saying something for a film about a man who allegedly spent years watching people’s most intimate moments while hiding in the attic above them.

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David Wharton

David Wharton

David Wharton is a journalist and film critic with over 15 years of experience. His reviews for the Daily Dot focus on original movies and series produced by streaming entertainment services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. He lives in Texas, where he works as the online editor of DSNews.com