‘Dear Zachary’: The Most Devastating True Crime Documentary Ever Made

Dear Zachary

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is easily the most gut-wrenching documentary I have ever experienced. It’s heartbreaking and tragic. And it’s incredibly painful to sit through. The film invokes feelings of helplessness and rage. It’s the kind of viewing experience one wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. With that said, Dear Zachary absolutely needs to be seen. In spite of being gut-wrenching, this true crime doc is also a beautiful and heartfelt tribute. The tragedies that befall those chronicled within are inexcusable and unforgivable. But seeing their stories told in a way that celebrates their time on this earth and keeps their memories alive makes this a filmic tribute that cannot be missed. 

Dear Zachary tells the story of Andrew Bagby, a doctor who was killed at the hands of his partner. The picture began life as a tribute to Bagby, with the intent of giving the subject’s son Zachary a way to look back on the father he would never really know. The finished version of the film is far removed from where it started. But the unexpected redirects make the proceedings as gripping, if not more so, than a narrative feature. 

In fact, the story chronicled within Dear Zachary is presented a lot like a scripted cinematic effort might be. Yet, it’s infinitely more heartbreaking than any work of fiction, seeing as the story is 100% true. Unlike a fictitious tearjerker, you can’t shake this off when you’ve finished watching. You cannot tell yourself it’s just a movie because it isn’t.

The beginning of the documentary lays the groundwork by acquainting the audience with Andrew Bagby, his core friend group, and his parents. We know, early on, that Andrew is deceased and that the doc is meant to serve as a tribute to his son, Zachary. However, the uninformed viewer has absolutely no clue, at the onset, that the details surrounding Andrew’s death will be among the least horrifying of that which is chronicled. Andrew’s passing was unnecessary and tragic, for sure. But the details almost pale in comparison to the horrors that transpire after his untimely departure. 

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The events that follow Andrew’s death would be considered a ‘twist’ if this were a scripted effort. But this isn’t narrative filmmaking—it’s real life. So, the would-be twist is better described as a cruel and unexpected turn of events that materializes squarely out of left field. I’ll refrain from going into any more detail because the impact of the picture is likely to be greater to those unfamiliar with the details of the case. Suffice to say, the direction the latter portion of the documentary takes is unfathomable.  

While the unsettling subject matter does plenty to make this filmic effort a harrowing experience, the way the story is framed makes it even more captivating. The way director Kurt Kuenne combines voiceover with harrowing cutaway recreations to accompany the retelling of events puts the viewer right in the heart of the action. It’s all-encompassing. Feeling that close to the tragedy within makes Dear Zachary excruciating to watch. But that’s a true testament to Kuenne’s prowess as a storyteller. 

Kuenne also does a remarkable job of familiarizing the viewer with Andrew. Kuenne is a longtime filmmaker, who started making movies in his formative years. As such, he is able to paint a visual picture of Andrew that makes the audience feel as if they know him. That makes his death feel almost personal. Even though the average viewer has never met Andrew, his onscreen depiction and the recollections from those that loved him are likely to make the viewer feel a powerful connection to him. Shortly after Kuenne establishes Andrew as the kind of person almost anyone would want to be friends with, the rug is pulled out from under the audience. 

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Also adding to the film’s profound impact is the way the interview subjects hold absolutely nothing back. For instance, Andrew’s parents openly admit that their initial plan, when they learned of their son’s death, was to claim his remains and subsequently commit suicide. While many parents that have lost a child may have felt that level of despair, many likely wouldn’t be willing to open up and say that with a camera crew present. Some of the candor can surely be attributed to Kuenne’s preexisting relationship with the subjects he is profiling. But it goes deeper than that. Kuenne manages to create a safe space for those participating and disarms them to the point where they feel comfortable enough to completely bare their soul. 

The final piece that really makes Dear Zachary an unmissable experience is the way Kuenne pieces the footage together. The editing is strategic and serves to make the viewer feel like they are part of the story. Kuenne uses the editing process to build tension, tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, and most importantly, to craft a beautiful tribute that ensures Andrew will never be forgotten. 

If you’re ready to check out Dear Zachary, this heartbreaking tale of love, loss, and pure evil, is available to stream on Tubi and Pluto, as of the publication of this post. 



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